Originally published in 2016, here are some well timed reminders for drivers as we seem to be moving into a time of heavier snow this season:
So, you've made it successfully through your first winter drives and are becoming more comfortable getting around Teton Valley in the winter. Great! Time to move on to the next level of on the road safety. If you're not quite there yet, you might want to check out the two previous Teton Valley News Weather Blogs on the subject of winter driving, The First Snows of Winter and Those First Winter Drives.
Something to always keep in the back of your mind as you drive, no matter how skilled you are, is the question, “what if?” What if that driver in front of me stops short? What if the car coming toward me loses control and slides toward me? What if my car fails or something else happens to strand me here in this weather? What if it's another driver who's stuck and needs my help?
In the case of someone doing something unexpected and putting you in danger, part of safe winter driving is having a plan, an escape route, and leaving enough room between you and other drivers to carry out your plan. If that plan includes slowing down or stopping, be sure to know how your brakes work best. If you have anti-lock brakes, try them out on slick roads before you have an emergency. They have an unusual sound and feel when you apply them that might startle you or make you think they aren't working unless you're used to it. If you don't have anti-lock brakes, pumping the brakes might be a better plan than slamming them on, but prove that to yourself in a safe way before an emergency arises, or you see that unexpected stop sign ahead. If the brakes don't do the trick fast enough, do you have another plan to slow down? Rub against a snow bank or guard rail? Not great for your car, but it could prevent something worse. By far, the best plan would have been to be going slow enough to stop in time. As a very last resort, as you slide into a busy intersection because you can't stop, sound your horn and warn the other drivers that you can't stop; maybe they can take some evasive action in time. Is there a chance that turning the wheel will make a collision less dangerous than a direct head on or t-bone collision?
To maintain that confident feeling of traction, different people have different preferences of tire. Siped, studded, all weather, expensive imports, tire chains or cables or cleats… You won't know for sure until you try them out, but a good tire professional will steer you in the right direction. Here in Teton Valley you will find dealers you can really trust. If you're not sure, ask around, see what your neighbors say.
What if you do get stuck? Planning for being stranded for a time in very cold weather can start right now. You'll need a way to communicate, a well charged cell phone, but it may not work in many locations. Do you have a HAM radio and know how to use it? (Teton Valley Radio Amateur Club can help get you set up.) If all that fails and nobody else is on the road, you may be there a while. Your plan should include staying with your car. Except for some very unusual circumstances (like it's on fire or something) that will be the safest place for you to be, but it'll be safer if you have planned for it. Here is a short checklist of items we put together on the Teton Valley Weather Facebook page. Having these in your car is a good start at being ready:
__Snow tires (probably better on your car than in it)
__Window scraper (I like the one with a thin metal blade)
__Extra weight over the drive wheels
__Flashlight that works when it's cold
__Tow strap or chain
__Shovel (save space with a folding avalanche shovel)
__Kitty litter or sand
__Extra warm clothes and/or blankets
__Snacks & unfrozen water bottle (take it out with you)
__Candle in a metal can and something to light it with
__Whistle (the kind without a pea in it, they freeze up)
What about letting someone know where you're going and when you expect to be there before you leave when the roads are dicey? It might cut your time out in the cold by a lot.
“Cyan” added this thoughtful idea:
“I keep a little notebook of handwritten emergency contact details in the car between front seats in case either I need to contact someone and my cellphone not working or in case of (emergency) and I'm unresponsive and someone else is unable to access my password locked phone.”
And finally, Bob added:
“A map to Arizona!” Great planning, Bob!
Whatever you decide you should have in your car when you make your plan, try to be sure to cover all the needs you will have. Warmth will be a priority. Various kinds of heaters, including the one in your car, can be dangerous options because they can deplete oxygen and present carbon monoxide hazards, both of which are fatal. (Leaving your car running so the heater works is the dangerous part. If snow obstructs the tail pipe, carbon monoxide may flood into your car.) A small candle will produce a surprising amount of heat and comforting light in a closed up car (or snow cave, for that matter). For safety's sake, keep the candle in a metal can to lessen the fire hazard, and still open a car window just a crack.
Once you have heat and keep the air safe to breathe, having some water to drink will be the next part of your plan. If you keep a bottle of drinking water in your car all the time, you'll probably find it frozen solid when you need it. It's a better plan to take a bottle out with you when you leave home. And by that I mean a bottle of water. Alcohol is not a good plan at times like this. It will make you feel warm at first, but that's because it causes body heat to rush out, leaving you much colder in the long run.
Finally, something to eat is good to have too. Not that you'll be stuck so long that you'll starve without it, but it can be very comforting to have something familiar to snack on.
As for the tow strap, shovel, etc. trying to dig yourself or someone else out and get going again is only a good plan if you really know how to do it. Maybe that'll be a separate blog someday, winter driving 103? But be aware that in this area, a person seldom passes by a stuck vehicle without stopping to offer assistance. It's a good community-oriented tradition that's hard not to be proud of, but use good sense when giving or receiving help. Help delivered in an unsafe way or that's over the head of the well meaning helper can sometimes make the matter worse. Also, keep in mind that the sheriff would surely prefer to know about any traffic mishap on the public roads.
Planning to leave your vehicle and walk to help is probably, but not always, the worst plan you can make. It depends on how far you know (not think) help is, and how far you know (not think) you can walk in those conditions. If another driver will likely be along, why risk leaving your car? All too often you hear of rescuers locating a stranded car only to find it empty.
As a relatively new Idaho driver myself, this is my 12th winter in Teton Valley, I am far from an expert on these things, but my experiences learning them, some the hard way, are fresh enough for me to be able to pass them on to you. Please join this, and other weather related discussions on our Teton Valley Weather Facebook page.