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It is quickly getting to be the time of year when weather conditions in many areas of the country can turn a relatively easy trip on the road into a treacherous one. But you can take precautions to make winter traveling safer.
Autumn and winter are times of change, and change can be hazardous on the road. Rain can quickly lead to sleet or snow in northern or mountainous regions, making roads icy. Perhaps the most important advice is to pace yourself – allow extra time for everything, from starting the engine to braking to turning a corner. On a slippery road, sudden movements can be extremely dangerous.
One of the major winter driving hazards is reduced visibility, so before pulling away, clean all windows and mirrors completely. You may have to stop frequently to clean the rearview mirrors and side windows so that you can see in all directions. Reduce your speed to compensate for limited visibility, turn on your headlights (low beams work best, especially in fog), and get off the road altogether if visibility is cut to near zero.
Another hallmark of winter is reduced traction. Stay alert to changing conditions, and remember that more traction is needed (to accelerate, turn, and brake) as your speed increases. As a general rule, you can drive at about half your normal speed on packed snow. A steady speed is best. When you first start out, get a feel for the road. Make turns gently, don’t brake any harder than necessary, and avoid using the engine brake and speed retarder, which can cause skids. In general, follow the braking recommendations of your vehicle manufacturer.
Your traction will be at its worst on ice, so be alert for freezing rain and other changing conditions. Feel for ice on the front of your outside mirror, which indicates that there may soon be ice on the road. Another indication is the spray thrown from other vehicles – if the spray suddenly stops, ice may be forming. Be especially careful on and underneath bridges and in shaded areas where ice forms first.
Before bad weather hits, have the following items on your vehicle checked:
- Tread depth of tires;
- Level and condition of antifreeze;
- Battery, brakes, windshield wipers and fluid, headlights, tail lights, and hazard lights;
- Thermostat, heating system, including defroster;
- Headlights, tail lights, and hazard lights.
In case of emergency
Make sure you have a survival kit in your vehicle that includes the following items:
- Extra clothing, including caps and gloves, and blankets;
- Non-perishable food, such as nuts or dried fruit, and bottled water;
- A cellular phone;
- A flashlight, flares, jumper cables;
- A small shovel and a sand bag, which provides weight in rear-wheel drive vehicles and can also be used to provide traction if you get stuck.
The pre-trip inspection
Preparation for winter roadway hazards should start before you get into your truck – put extra emphasis on doing a thorough pre-inspection, paying special attention to the following items.
- Check the heating and defrosting systems, including fans, to make sure they’re heating the cab and clearing the windshield.
- Brush any snow off the windshield, and clear the intake in front of the windshield as well.
- Make sure your headlights and reflectors are clean – road spray can decrease their light output.
- Remove ice and snow from wiring and air lines, and also from hand holds, steps, and deck plates to reduce the danger of slipping and falling.
- Inspect your tire chains for broken hooks, worn or broken cross links, and bent or broken side chains.
- Make regular checks for ice on the brake linings. Keep air tanks as moisture-free as possible by draining both tractor and trailer tanks daily.
- Keep your fuel tank full, and drain water from the tank bottom to help prevent frozen lines and filters.
- Pack an emergency survival kit and include other winter gear including a scraper, a brush, and sand or kitty litter for traction.
If you’re stuck
In the winter it’s easy to get stuck, and vehicle breakdowns are common. If you do get stuck, avoid spinning your wheels, which will only make the situation worse. Instead, dig out from in front of the tires, put something (sand, kitty litter, chains) under the drive wheels to increase traction, straighten out the wheels, put the engine in second gear, if possible, and accelerate out smoothly. If you’re still stuck, it may be best to stop trying and to call for assistance.
If you have prepared well, you should have an emergency survival kit with extra clothing to wear. Stay in the cab and use your food and water supply cautiously until help arrives. Run the engine occasionally to warm it. If you absolutely must leave the cab, leave a note stating where you went and the direction you traveled.