It has been a relatively mild and snow-free winter (thus far), so when I peered out my front window late Saturday afternoon I was surprised to see a dusting of snow on the lawn and driveway.
A short time later while checking e-mail, I came across a link (courtesy of a daily transportation e-newsletter that I subscribe to and highly recommend) to a story about how easy it is to crash in light snow. Published in The Kansas City Star, the article included footage from traffic cameras in Overland Park, Kansas. Enamored with all things transportation and safety, I couldn’t resist and watched as hapless drivers lost control of their vehicles at intersections around the city.
The footage offers parents a great opportunity to talk to their teen drivers about vehicle control, following distance and braking on snowy roadways. (It’s also a good reality check for any motorist.) Even a dusting of snow can cause problems for the most experienced driver, so ensuring that novice drivers know what to do in the event they encounter snow at the end of a school day, after work or following a sporting or other event, is essential.
When it comes to accelerating, remember that traction is greatest before a vehicles’ wheels start to spin. Gently applying pressure to the gas pedal is best for retaining traction and avoiding skids. If your wheels do start to spin, ease up on the gas until traction returns.
Once on the road, increase your following distance. While three to four seconds should be the norm on dry pavement, increasing your following distance to at least 8 to 10 seconds will provide the longer distance needed for safe stopping. This is particularly important when approaching intersections or hills. Keeping a careful eye on how other vehicles are reacting and staying far enough behind them will give you the chance to gradually slow down or maneuver around them (particularly if the vehicle ahead of you gets stuck traveling up a hill).
Steering on snowy surfaces can be difficult. The old adage slow and steady wins the race is good advice for handling slick roads. If you accelerate or brake hard, drive too fast or jerk the wheel, it’s likely your vehicle will start to skid. If that happens, don’t panic, remain calm and stay off the brakes. Skids involve either a vehicle’s rear or front wheels, so knowing how to regain control of your vehicle should you encounter either is important.
In the event of a rear-wheel skid, continue to look at your path of travel down the road (on slippery surfaces focus your attention as far ahead as possible—at least 20-30 seconds). Steer in the direction you want the front of your vehicle to go. Don’t slam on the brakes—a typical response to a skid that actually makes regaining vehicle control even more difficult. Instead as your rear wheels stop skidding, continue to steer to avoid a rear-wheel skid in the opposite direction.
Front-wheel skids occur as the result of hard braking or acceleration in front-wheel drive vehicles. They’re less hazardous than their rear-wheel counterparts, but can still be dangerous. To regain control in a front-wheel skid, continue to look ahead as detailed above and steer your vehicle in the direction you want the front of the vehicle to go. Stay off the brakes and wait for the front wheels to grip the road. Once traction returns, gently steer the wheel in the direction you want to travel.
When it comes to driving and braking on slippery surfaces, practice truly does make perfect. Taking a teen to a parking lot or other off-the-road location with plenty of blacktop, will allow him or her to get a feel for driving on snow and ice. If the vehicle is equipped with antilock brakes, have the teen step hard enough on the brake pedal to make the wheels lock momentarily. He or she should feel the brake pedal vibrate or “chatter” and pulse back against his or her foot. Advise the teen that this is normal and by keeping his or her foot firmly on the brake (no pumping needed) the system will work as designed.
If a teen is learning on a vehicle that isn’t equipped with anti-lock brakes, safety experts recommend practicing threshold braking. This involves keeping the heel of your foot on the floor and using the ball of your foot to apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal to the “threshold” of locking the brakes. The key is keeping your heal on the floor, so that your ankle rather than your thigh muscles are doing the work.
For a thorough overview of these tips and techniques (including diagrams illustrating braking, steering and skid techniques), download a copy of AAA’s free publication “How to Go in Ice and Snow.” The pamphlet also covers vehicle preparation, what to keep in your car in the event of an emergency and other helpful information. Also check out this Today Show segment for a good recap of what I've addressed in this blog.
Finally, don’t forget that New Jersey law requires motorists to clear all ice and snow from their vehicles before taking to the road. Failure to do so carries a fine of $25 to $75 (that amount increases to $200-$1,000 if the ice and/or snow results in property damage or injury to another)—far more than the cost of a snowbrush and ice scraper.