December 16, 2017

Top 6 winter driving tips: Avoid worst winter driving mistakes

By Brian Herrick, Sgt.
RCMP NCO i/c Blackfalds
Integrated Traffic Services

We’re Canadians. We should, in theory, know how to drive in snowy, icy conditions, laughing at the ravages of winter as we cruise comfortably to our destinations with nary a skid or slide.  But as many of us know, that’s not the case. Although Statistics Canada reported an overall year-over-year downward trend in traffic fatalities as of 2012, insurance claims for collisions tend to be highest in the period between December and February. Even scarier: According to a TD Insurance poll, a quarter of Canadians feel anxious or panicked when they drive in winter, with 36 percent of drivers avoiding the roads unless they absolutely have to drive.  Unfortunately, many drivers make winter driving worse than it should be because they make common errors that increase their chances of getting in a crash. Take a look at our list of the worst winter driving mistakes, and see if there’s room for improvement in your driving.

1. You don’t adjust your speed for the weather conditions. Speed limits are set for ideal road conditions—that is, dry asphalt and clear sight-lines. The instant you add moisture and limited visibility to your drive, your speed should drop. Don’t be fooled by a seemingly clear road—we’ve all heard stories of drivers hitting patches of invisible black ice and skidding out of control. Slow down.  You let your four-wheel drive make you over-confident. It’s true—vehicles with four-wheel drive tend to perform better in icy or snowy conditions, because that extra torque can help you accelerate faster and get out of becoming stuck. However, four-wheel drive isn’t a license to drive quickly, because most of your traction in a skid comes from the interaction between your tires and the road—which has nothing to do with how much torque you’re able to put behind your tires. Better to slow down and, ideally, invest in winter tires.

2. Your car could be mistaken for a snowblower. Aside from irritating the drivers behind you, leaving a pile of snow on your car is a visibility hazard for you, too. Clear off your roof, your bumpers, your hood, and make sure to get snow away from your headlights and tail lights.

3. You don’t leave enough space. It takes four to ten times longer to brake in snowy or icy conditions, which means that you need to leave yourself a lot more space to stop and maneuver. Make sure you leave even room for trucks, and never pass them on the right—they take a lot more space to brake, and have a huge blind spot on their right side. Always give trucks a wide berth.

4. You are too stressed out. Have you got your steering wheel in a death grip? Do you slam on the brakes the instant you start to slide? Do you find yourself over-correcting a skid? Skidding is scary, but panicking makes it much worse. Relax your grip, brake gently, and steadily, steer smoothly as you keep your eyes locked on where you want to go.  Do you try and get your car to multi-task. Don’t ask your car to do more than one thing at a time either. Brake (gently), then steer (smoothly), then accelerate (slowly) when you’re able to. Combining braking with steering is a recipe for sliding.  “Being smooth” is the right approach toward good winter driving. 

5. You aren’t prepared for something to happen. Hopefully you won’t end up in a ditch, but it happens to the best of us, so make sure you’re prepared. If you end up stuck, the safest place to be is in your car. Run the engine for about ten minutes every hour to stay warm (make sure to crack your window a little, or check your tailpipe to make sure it isn’t blocked and sending exhaust into the car). Pack an emergency kit with what you might need: extra warm clothes, a blanket, matches, a safety candle, snacks like energy bars, bottled water, a first aid kit, a collapsible shovel, kitty litter or sand for traction, paper towels, a tow chain, booster cables, and flares. And make sure to charge your phone before you leave.  You drive on running lights only (or rely on your car to switch on your headlights). If you don’t have your headlights on, then your tail lights don’t light up, meaning you’re invisible to the people behind you. And automatic headlights are great—except when they don’t come on, which is more frequently than you think, especially in bad weather that happens during daylight hours. Make sure your complete headlight system is on when you’re driving in rough weather (though you should switch to low beams in heavy fog or snow). And if you have to stop suddenly, or visibility gets really bad, throw on your four-way flashers—the people driving behind you will be grateful.

6. Being fatigued significantly increases the risk of a crash. It makes us less aware of what is happening on the road and impairs our ability to respond quickly and safely if a dangerous situation arises. Driver fatigue is believed to contribute to more than 30% of road crashes.
Symptoms of driver fatigue
It is very difficult for drivers to accurately assess their own level of fatigue. The ability to self- assess becomes increasingly impaired as you get more fatigued, however the self-confidence in this ability remains. Nevertheless, there are some warning signs to look out for, including:
• Trouble focussing, or narrowing of attention
• Head nodding, or inability to keep the eyes open
• Not remembering the last few minutes
• Poor judgement, slower reaction time
• “Zoning out”
• Daydreaming and wandering thoughts
• Constant yawning or rubbing your eyes
• Drifting in the lane
Keep in mind that if you are experiencing any of these symptoms of driver fatigue, it is very likely that your driving performance is already impaired.
Because fatigue impairs mental processing and decision making abilities, drivers can lapse into a “micro-sleep” without realizing. This may only last a few seconds, but if it coincides with the need to perform some critical driving task (e.g. turning the wheel or responding to a stop signal), the risk of crashing is greatly increased.  These accidents typically involve a single vehicle that departs the driving lane and collides with another object, such as a tree beside the road or another vehicle.  The driver is often alone, having been driving for some hours, often between midnight and 6am.  The consequences of accidents attributed to driver fatigue are often the most serious in terms of death, injuries and property damage because the fatigued driver makes no attempt to avoid the impending crash.  This is why the effects of driver fatigue are so dangerous.

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