Law enforcement officials are urging motorists to consider it time to take winter driving in stride as road conditions continue to mark the area's march toward six months of snow and ice.
The week's rain and snow mixture on Kenai Peninsula roads has caused a usual spike in the number of traffic accidents reported to Alaska State Troopers -- a sign that drivers need to pay more attention to road conditions, said Trooper 1st Sgt. Nils Monsen of the E Detachment in Soldotna.
"It's an annual event that in the first few days of significant snow or ice that we see an increase in the number of fender-benders," Monsen said. "It seems that it takes everyone a good 30 days of winter driving to get used to things."
Monsen said most accidents can be attributed to three factors: inexperience, following too closely and driving too fast for road conditions.
"We've been seeing a few more accidents during the high-traffic times in the morning," Monsen said. "With the freeze-thaw conditions we've been having lately, the roadway has been more unpredictable. Plus, people are trying to get to work and things are a bit more hectic -- that's when accidents are more likely to happen."
Monsen said a good way for drivers to practice handling skids is to experiment in a large, deserted parking lot after enough ice has accumulated on the pavement. Make the car skid and learn the proper procedures needed to regain control, like gently turning the steering wheel in the direction of the skid and staying off the gas and brake pedals.
Monsen also recommended using the brake only when traveling in a straight line. Gently apply the brakes and release just before they lock. Repeat the process with short pauses in between, Monsen said.
When following another car, the recommended distance is at least two car lengths for every 10 miles per hour in speed, Monsen said. Those distances increase on icy roads.
"And studded tires are a must," he said. "They really make a difference for traction and braking."
Sand also offers improved traction, and state Department of Transportation crews are into their winter schedules of regular sanding of peninsula roadways.
"We're running regular split shifts with two crews that are out there 22 hours per day," said Mike Morawitz, the DOT supervisor for the Homer area. "We're just on the fringe of it," he said of more winter-like weather. "I figure it will be another week before the snow sticks on the ground."
Morawitz is currently stationed on the north end of the peninsula as he fills in for a vacationing George Church, the DOT area supervisor who oversees maintenance from Seward to Kodiak.
Morawitz said Tuesday the first priority for crews are main roads such as the Sterling, Seward and Kenai Spur highways. Crews then branch out to side roads after the main highways are serviced.
"We've got a lot more coverage right now because the foreman is out with a pickup directing the trucks," Morawitz said. "We're trying to send sanders in each direction -- north and south."
DOT Soldotna maintenance foreman Bill Pool said his nine-man crew covers 44 side roads and maintains 561 lane-miles with four trucks. Soldotna trucks work the Sterling Highway from Mile 65 to Mile 114 and out to Mile 12 on the Kenai Spur Highway. The three-man North Kenai station handles the remainder of Spur Highway maintenance, Pool said.
"Needless to say, we're busy," he said. "Our main concern right now is to get people to slow down."
Morawitz said the DOT relies more on phone tips from the public than most peninsula residents think.
"We can't be everywhere and the phone calls really help us out," Morawitz said. "We appreciate people who call and say 'this hill or that intersection is slick' instead of the ones who call and complain."
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