How and when to drive in bad weather

September 30, 2014

Jordan Smith

Zenith City  Weekly


Traveling by car during inclement weather can be frightening, especially if you’re not sure how to respond. First and foremost, slow down. Posted speed limits assume ideal driving conditions.


Fog. Fog can reduce visibility to less than a mile. Turn on your windshield defroster and low-beam headlights or fog lights. Use the right-hand side of the road as a guide, to help you stay in your own lane and to avert your eyes from being blinded by oncoming headlights.


If you need to stop, avoid the shoulder of the road. If there’s nowhere else to go, leave your headlights on and turn on your hazard lights so other drivers can see you.


Rain. Hydroplaning is when there’s only water between your tires and the road. It can happen even in light rain. Any water on the road reduces traction, especially combined with oil and grease. If you start to hydroplane, let off the gas, steer gently, brake lightly, and stay calm.


There are two rainstorm conditions in which you should get off the road: If your windshield wipers can no longer keep up, causing significant loss of visibility, or if any part of the road is underwater. Even shallow water can eat away at the culvert beneath the road, rendering it unable to support the weight of your vehicle.


High winds. Wind is rarely steady, so the risk, especially for large vehicles like semi-trucks, SUVs, and vans, is being blown off-course by a gust. Smaller vehicles are more at-risk from flying debris, downed power lines, and being on the road with the semi-trucks, SUVs, and vans.


Keep both hands on the steering wheel so when a gust hits or you encounter debris in the road, you are prepared to respond. Use caution when coming out of a protected area into open space, for example, when exiting a tunnel.


Lightning. Nowhere outdoors is truly safe during an electrical storm. Your best bet is to find the nearest fully enclosed building and wait for the storm to pass.


If shelter is unavailable, your vehicle may be safe, provided it is fully enclosed—non-convertible, windows rolled up. This is still risky though. Lightning could shatter the windows or ignite a fire, not to mention destroy your car and leave you pretty shaken up, to say the least.


If you exit your vehicle, seek low ground and avoid open spaces, water, trees, or other tall objects.


Hail. Small hail poses little more of a bother than rain, but large hail can range from the size of a golfball to a baseball. In a hailstorm, stop driving. The velocity of a moving car will only increase the damage.


If you cannot find enclosed shelter, remain in your car. What hail can do to your windshield, it can also do to your skull. Park under a roof or overhang, on the leeward side of a building, or, in a pinch, with the rear of your car facing into the wind, so the window farthest from you is more likely to absorb any damage.


Tornado. If funnel clouds have been spotted in your area, seek immediate shelter in a reinforced structure.


If shelter is not available, evaluate whether you can quickly get to ground that is lower than the roadway, such as a ditch or ravine. If so, exit your vehicle and lie down with your hands over your head. If there is no ground lower than the roadway, remain in your vehicle with your seat belt on and get your head down below the windows. Neither of these options is truly safe, but they’re better than nothing.


Do not seek shelter beneath a bridge, overpass, or in any non-reinforced structure.


Heavy snow. If we couldn’t drive in snow, we in the Northland would never leave our houses, so the real risk in a local snowstorm is overly confident drivers.


As in a rainstorm, turn on your headlights and windshield wipers, and monitor your visibility. If you can’t see, pull over. Minnesota’s state motto is “L'Étoile du Nord,” not, “Hold my beer and watch this.”


Apply the gas lightly and the brakes even more lightly. Avoid sharp turns and release the gas while turning. Accelerate when approaching a hill going up; decelerate when approaching a hill going down.


If you lose control of your car, release the gas and steer gently in the direction you want to go. Do not over-correct and do not reapply the gas until you’ve regained control.


Most cars are now equipped with anti-lock braking systems. If you need to stop quickly, press steadily on the brake and the anti-lock system will still allow you to steer. In a vehicle without anti-lock brakes, the wheels lock when the brake is depressed, so the brake has to be periodically released (“pumped”) to allow you to steer.


Ice. Ice can form quickly—and invisibly—during fog, freezing rain, or snow, rendering your brakes not just useless, but actually dangerous. If you hit a patch of ice, just release the gas and try to coast over it without turning your steering wheel.


If you lose control of the car, stay calm. Ice is patchy and your tires may regain traction. Keep the steering wheel always turned in the direction you want to go, and use your brakes as little as possible.


We could be facing winter driving as early as October this year. The forecast is an average temperature of 46 degrees, with snow possible between the 5th and the 10th and again between the 18th and 21st.


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