Ice, snow, dark among the many reasons to slow down on area roads

Be on the lookout

Posted: Tuesday, November 01, 2005


  Safe driving in the winter means being ready for anything. Clarion file photo

Safe driving in the winter means being ready for anything.

Clarion file photo

Good driving habits are important anytime, but now that the long nights of winter approach its time to start paying closer attention to seasonal hazards like freezing rain, snowstorms, slick pavement and those hulking creatures de-scended from the high country milling about on the roadway.

Think ahead and slow down. Those are the central elements of advice from Lt. Peter Mlynarik of the Alaska State Troopers E Detachment in Soldotna.

A bit of common sense can make those easier habits to assume, he noted.

Leave a little earlier in the morning. Give yourself more reaction time by increasing the distance between you and the car in front.

A good rule of thumb in dry-road conditions is two seconds. Pick a spot being passed by the car ahead and count how long it takes you to pass the same spot. It's easier than estimating car lengths.

But remember that when road conditions are poor even four or more seconds' separation still could be hazardous.

"In the winter, stopping distances are extremely enlarged," Mlynarik said. "It takes a lot more time to come to a complete stop."

Applying the brakes at a red light presents few problems in the summer. But when the roads are slick, it pays to plan on stopping even if that light ahead is green. Stay keenly aware of your surroundings at intersections. You may be entitled to the road when your light is green, but the guy approaching from the cross direction may not be able to stop. It pays to stay alert.

Many Alaskans have vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive for added control, and this often induces a false sense of security.

Four-wheel drive doesn't actually help a car or truck stop.

Even if you are lucky enough to avoid an accident while going too fast and following too closely, 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. Troopers will be looking for "reasonable and prudent" driving, Mlynarik said.

Another tip for winter safety is ensuring your equipment is good. Keep a winter emergency kit in the car. Install a set of studded tires for added traction and control.

"Don't use cruise control in the winter," Mlynarik said.

Some vehicles in cruise control will sense a drop in speed on a hill and may attempt to accelerate too quickly, causing the tires to lose traction on icy surfaces.

"Make sure your windshield is clear and the defrost warm and working before driving," he said.

A poor habit we all exhibit at one time or another, especially when we are in a hurry, is to scrape the ice off the outside, but try to drive before the interior of the car is warm. Soon your breath condenses on the cold glass and you're rubbing out small portholes of visibility often while ignoring the road.

Driving with such restricted vision could become a factor in determining cause and responsibility should you be in an accident, Mlynarik warned.

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.

Keep windshields and headlights clear of ice and snow. Also clean off those taillights, vehicle roofs and license plates, while you're at it.

"Some collisions with moose are simply unavoidable," Mlynarik said, "but many are. Hitting a moose can lead to damage, injury or even a fatality."

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.

Mlynarik also suggests extra caution where roads pass bodies of water like lakes and rivers. That steam evaporating from their surfaces in the frigid cold can condense on nearby road surfaces leading to an invisible condition called black ice that thin coating of ice that looks as dark as the asphalt it covers.

The same thing applies when rain falls at night, but turns to black ice on the roads in the early morning chill.

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