Safe Driving in Winter Weather
By: Gbenga Ogungbe, MS, MPH, ASP, CSP
Ergonomics and Loss Control Specialist with RAS
Driving in winter weather is quite challenging in many ways due to snow, sleet, black ice, freezing rain, and frigid temperatures. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), about 70% of accidental deaths in winter occur from automobile or transportation accidents. This translates to about 900 deaths and 76,000 injuries that are associated with vehicle crashes during snowfall or sleet. Nearly 70% of the US population live in snowy regions where as many as 70% of the nation’s roads are located. Unpredictable severe weather changes in the form of snow, ice, hail storms, snow squall, and snow blizzards often pose extreme dangers to drivers as they usually result in multiple catastrophic accidents.
Some of the major hazards of driving in winter include:
- Poor traction due to reduced frictional surfaces and forces between vehicle tires and the road surfaces that are covered in snow or ice sheets. The ability to stop is reduced, resulting in a doubling of the braking distance and increased stopping distance by up to 3 to 12 times than required on dry roads.
- Poor road conditions from slippery surfaces, especially at intersections, curves, and hills. Of particular note is black ice, which is a thin transparent coat of very slippery ice that appears as black and shining asphalt, usually on bridges and overpasses.
- The inability to properly see or be seen by other road users because of snow/ice coverings and road splatters on windshields, side glasses and mirrors, headlights, taillights, and turn signals.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends a three-P approach for safe winter driving:
- PREPARE for trips
- PROTECT yourself
- PREVENT crashes on the road
To prepare, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), you need to go over a safety checklist to winterize your car by checking the radiators, tires, wiper blades, heater and defroster, lights, brakes, exhausts, windows, and mirrors, and battery. Also, ensure your gas tank is as full as possible. It is important to monitor the weather forecast, have emergency items (flashlight, warning devices like flares, jumper cables, shovel, snow brush, and ice scraper) on hand, plan your route, and practice cold weather driving. In addition, you must clear snow from windshields, side mirrors, fog lights, and the tailpipe. Do not allow your vehicle engine to run inside a closed attached garage.
To protect yourself, you must buckle up and ensure minors use age-appropriate seats, drive slowly, keep your cell phone charged, and always stay vigilant and attentive. Stay inside the vehicle with your hazard lights turned on in an emergency. Avoid asphyxiation from carbon monoxide poisoning by ensuring your windows are slightly open, and the tailpipe is not blocked.
To prevent crashes, avoid drug and alcohol consumption when driving, drive at reduced speed, increase following distance between you and the vehicle ahead, avoid fatigue, watch out for pedestrians, and do not apply the brake suddenly. Other safety measures include avoiding or driving carefully on black ice; slowing down and allowing enough distance when approaching a hill, curve, or intersection; avoiding using cruise control when the road is wet or slippery; re-routing or rescheduling travel plans in the event of a severe winter weather advisory; and staying at home, if possible!