Clarion file photo An alert motorist waits for a pair of moose to cross a snow-covered road during a recent winter.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The days of hopping in your vehicle and going for a carefree drive at top speed limits on clear, relatively animal-free roads illuminated by the midnight sun of summer are gone for another year, and drivers need to prepare accordingly.
Now that the slick conditions of winter have arrived, drivers need to take extra care to avoid becoming part of vehicle accident statistics this season.
First and foremost in the realm of winter driving safety tips is controlling speed, according to Alaska State Trooper Brad Nelson with the E Detachment in Soldotna.
During the summer, drivers think nothing of plowing up to a red light and hitting the brakes when they get there, but that doesn't work in the winter, since stopping distances quadruple in slick conditions, Nelson said.
"You need to plan to stop even if the light is green," he said. "And when the light turns green you need to be aware of your surroundings and be aware of the person who's not doing that (and slides through their red light into the intersection)."
Safe following distances also increase in the winter, in relation to the increase in stopping distance. The two car length-rule doesn't cut it if that's not enough time to keep from hitting the car in front of you, as often is the case in winter.
Even if you are lucky enough to avoid an accident when disregarding common sense in regard to safe speeds and following distances, that doesn't mean you'll avoid a ticket. State statutes allow law enforcement officers to cite drivers for not heeding the road conditions, even if their driving would be perfectly legal in the summer.
"Everything changes as road conditions change," Nelson said. "... On (Kalifornsky) Beach it's 45 and they can only be doing 30 but they still slide and hit somebody. Just because it's posted 45 does not mean you can go that fast in the winter."
As for gear, a good emergency kit is a must and "studs are our friends," Nelson said. Four-wheel drive is a bonus when it comes to maneuvering on slick streets, but this feature shouldn't give drivers a false sense of security.
"Four-wheel drive does not put a force field around your car," Nelson said. "It has absolutely nothing to do with stopping power."
As snow piles up in the mountains, moose head for lower elevations in search of food and easier footing. A plowed road can be a blessing for a moose weary of plodding through snowdrifts but is a disaster waiting to happen for a driver who doesn't spot the moose in time or is going too fast to stop.
In order to increase visibility and chances of avoiding a vehicle-ungulate encounter, keeping vehicles cleared of ice and snow is crucial. This includes all windows, headlights, taillights, vehicle roofs and license plates, while you're at it.
"People are getting lazier with regard to clearing off windows in the winter," Nelson said. "Don't just drive around at 30 mph hoping the wind will blow it off."
All roads should be watched with a winter-wary eye, but some spots can be particularly perilous. Bridges, since they're surrounded top and bottom by cold air, freeze first and thaw last, requiring extra caution. The soft snow left by plows on road shoulders also should be handled with care, since a vehicle can be sucked off the road if it gets a tire mired in the powder.
And a final reminder: Just because the RVs are gone doesn't mean you'll be able to get to your destination in the amount of time you'd like to get there. Winter weather is another reason to budget extra time into your trip.
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