Winter demands a change in driving habits, preparation

Posted: Monday, October 16, 2000

It happens every year.

With the first snow, roadside ditches fill with cars.

"Investigating personal fault, we always find the people who haven't been here for a year," said Officer John Gregory of the Soldotna Police Department. "You need to slow down and stay way behind the vehicle in front of you. You don't know where the ice is. You can't stop on a dime anymore."

The first icy roads catch experienced Alaska drivers, too, he said. People need to be in the habit of driving for winter conditions, and when the first ice turns streets to glass, people usually are not in the habit.

"You just need to reduce your speed, so if a moose steps into the road, you have time to react," he said. "If you make a fast correction, you're going to spin your car. You need to slow down and make smooth, steady movements with the wheel."

You must be prepared, too, in case the car in front of you slows or stops. For normal driving conditions, state law mandates a following distance of at least two seconds. In other words, you should pass a roadside landmark at least two seconds after the car in front of you. On snowy or icy roads, the safe following distance is at least twice as great -- four seconds or more, Gregory said.

Another rule is to maintain one car length in following distance for each 10 miles per hour in speed. For icy roads, double the distance. So, traveling 35 miles per hour on a snowy road, stay at least six or seven car-lengths behind the next car, Gregory said.

And always wear your seat belt.

"Sometimes, the prudent speed limit is not to be on the road at all, because sometimes, if you're going two miles per hour, you're going to go through a stop sign," he said. "The most hazardous is black ice, when there is no grip on the road. Worse than that is if it warms up or it's sleeting, and there is moisture on the ice. I've been working days when the sand truck has had to back up the hills throwing sand for its tires. There are days when the school buses can't make it up the Skyview hill. I've seen buses going backward while they're going forward."

There is no substitute for cautious driving, but there are ways to improve traction.

"I think studded tires should be mandatory," said 1st Sgt. Nils Monsen of the Alaska State Troopers in Soldotna. "They provide safer traction at all speeds. They give far superior braking capability."

Studded tires are legal from Sept. 16 through April 30, he said.

Inexperience is a big contributor to winter accidents, he said. One way to combat that is to practice winter skills in a big empty parking lot, where there are no obstacles. Make your car skid, and learn how to control it. When you skid, take your foot off the gas and keep it off the brake. Turn gently in the direction you are skidding. Make no sudden corrections until you regain control.

To avoid skids, brake gently and only when the car is traveling in a straight line. Release the brakes just before they lock, and repeat the process with short pauses between. Watch for black ice at intersections, underpasses, shady spots and bridges. Driving down icy hills, use low gear to slow down, not the brakes.

Reduced visibility also causes winter accidents. Before you leave, clear frost and snow from windows, headlights and tail lights, Monsen said. At night in heavy snow or fog, use low-beam headlights for better visibility.

Leave early and be prepared for poor driving conditions and delays.

"Be more alert for other drivers having steering difficulties," he said. "Head-on collisions are more frequent in winter because oncoming vehicles lose control."

By keeping alert, you have a better chance of avoiding an out-of-control car, he said.

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