Snow keeping drivers on guard

Posted: Thursday, October 18, 2001

Wednesday morning's wintry wonderland caused cries of anticipation from excited children, whines of confusion from bewildered pets and groans of dismay from motorists -- especially the ones who had not yet gotten snow tires on their vehicles.

If they planned to make a quick stop by a garage and have them changed on the way to work, they found themselves out of luck, as most area mechanics were already backed up with clients from the snow that fell last week.

"We had our first snow last week and we haven't slowed down since, but today is driving them in in droves," said Bob Sherman of Johnson's Tire Service in Soldotna on Wednesday.

Customers faced about an hour and a half wait to get tires switched over and about an hour wait to get new tires put on, Sherman said.

The same situation faced drivers at Alyeska Sales and Service in Kenai.

"Oh yes, we've had a whole lot of business," said owner Jerry Wortham.

Wortham estimated about a four- to five-hour wait to get tires changed at Alyeska, and said he had about an equal amount of customers who already had snow tires to ones who needed to buy tires.

Automotive mechanics aren't the only ones with an extra workload when the snow starts to fall. Area police officers also face extra responsibilities.

"We try to spend as much time as we can on the road and make sure we're visible so that people know they need to slow down and take that extra time in the morning to get themselves prepared," said Patrol Officer Mark Berestoff of the Soldotna Police Department.

As of Wednesday afternoon, neither the Kenai nor Soldotna police departments had responded to any major accidents due to the first substantial snowfall.

"There's been just a couple people sliding off the road, but no real damage," said Sgt. Chuck Kopp of the Kenai Police Department. "With the first snow, people tend to be really cautious because it catches them by surprise, so they go into a defensive driving mode. Once the snow becomes routine, the accidents will go up because people don't continue to drive with caution, historically speaking."

The driving conditions Wednes-day were not as bad as they could have been. Ordinarily, with a first major snowfall the road underneath the snow is not yet icy, Kopp said. But as the snow melts and freezes and as more snow falls, a bed of packed snow and ice builds up beneath the snow and makes driving more dangerous.

Caution, common sense and taking it slow are the best defenses against these conditions.

"Try to plan your day out, take the extra time and care with your speed, use caution when you're driving and don't hurry, because when you hurry, that's when accidents happen," Berestoff advised.

Drivers need to be aware of their surroundings and of what's in the road in front of them to give themselves extra time to slow down and stop, Berestoff added. This is very important at intersections -- especially uncontrolled ones.

"People need to be aware that they are still required to stop and to use caution when they are approaching the intersection," Berestoff said.

Kopp agreed that the No. 1 driving precaution is to drive a little more slowly and leave more room between leading and following vehicles in traffic due to the increase in braking distance, he said.

"Also, just pulling out in traffic is different," Kopp said. "You can't get out and get going like you can in the summer. You can't assume that somebody's going to brake to let you out into traffic. In the summer, drivers do that knowing (other drivers) will brake, in the winter that simply does not happen."

Kopp warns drivers to be extra cautious in certain danger areas around Kenai where sliding out of control has been a common occurrence in past winters. The stoplight at the intersection of the Kenai Spur Highway and Tinker Lane is always a bad one because people aren't expecting the light to turn red and aren't prepared to stop, Kopp said. To be safe at intersections Kopp recommends people with automatic transmissions shift into neutral when approaching intersections because the vehicle will brake faster if the wheels aren't engaged in drive.

The hills between miles three and four of the Kenai Spur Highway can also be particularly dangerous because the hills can get very slippery and vehicles tend to wander out of their lanes of travel, Kopp said.

"Most of our vehicle-in-the-ditch calls are actually with four-wheel-drive vehicles," Kopp said. "They overcompensate, and glare ice is still glare ice."

On hills with glare ice, four-wheel drive can be more dangerous than two-wheel drive, Kopp said.

"It is very difficult to get all four wheels to stay in line," he said. "All four wheels are in drive, and if the vehicle gets out of a straight line of travel it's very hard to recover."

Keeping turn signals and lights swept clear of snow, having a good battery, having snow tires, making sure cell phone batteries are charged up and keeping an emergency kit -- including cold weather gear, jumper cables, flares, a can of Heet and a blanket -- is always a good idea, Kopp said.

"But it's a fun time of the year," Kopp said. "Snow is fun, and we just want everybody to have a great time, but be safe."

Snow and rain are expected to fall today.

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