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How to Navigate Winter Road Conditions Safely

December 18, 2020

Icy Winter Road

Most drivers are affected by winter weather. According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 70% of the roads in the U.S. are located in regions that receive more than five inches of snow each year. That has serious implications; every year, more than 1,300 people are killed in car crashes involving snowy, icy or slushy roads. Another 116,800 are injured as a result of these winter hazards. 

As a fleet manager, you want to ensure the safety of both your drivers and the drivers around them. That’s why it’s important to remind your drivers about the dangers of winter and to refresh them on how to handle changing winter road conditions. 

Common Winter Challenges

During the coldest months, your drivers will face increased holiday traffic, reduced daylight hours and unpredictable weather that can turn deadly in a matter of minutes. Let’s look at five common challenges they may encounter this winter:

  1. Snow-covered roads: Snow on the road dramatically affects a driver’s ability to brake or maneuver. Snowy roads also can conceal patches of ice, further decreasing the amount of control a driver has. Areas where the road curves and drivers can’t see what’s ahead are even tricker because they allow less time for drivers to react if they encounter snow or ice.
  2. Reduced visibility: Visibility becomes a problem during the winter for several reasons. In addition to reduced daylight, sleet, rain, snowfall and dirty or foggy windows can also contribute to the problem.
  3. Black ice: Icy roadways are one of the worst winter driving hazards, and black ice is especially treacherous. Black ice usually forms when the temperature rises above freezing during the day, allowing snow to melt and form puddles. When temperatures drop in the evening, the water refreezes and creates a thin coat of transparent ice. (It’s called black ice because it appears to be the same color as the pavement.) Black ice is often found on bridges or below overpasses, so drivers should be particularly cautious when traveling those areas during winter months.
  4. Untreated residential roads: Residential roads can present all sorts of unpleasant surprises. In most cases, these lesser-traveled roads haven’t been treated with road salt. Because of this and because they have less traffic, snow and ice can accumulate more easily. Some particularly dangerous areas to watch out for include driveways, parking lots and rural roads.
  5. Decreased traction: Traction is essential for proper handling of a vehicle, and most of the conditions discussed here contribute to decreased traction. When there’s inadequate traction, the vehicle’s wheels may spin and drivers may lose control, sliding and/or being unable to brake effectively. Having time to make the right driving decision is critical to getting out of these perilous situations safely. 

Safe Driving on Winter Roads

Staying safe on icy or snowy roads requires knowledge of how the conditions affect the vehicle and what drivers can do to minimize danger. Drivers who encounter problems such as decreased traction, limited visibility and snow- or ice-covered roads should reduce their speed and be aware of their surroundings at all times. 

They should maintain a distance of at least six seconds between their vehicle and the one in front of them and avoid sudden braking or lane changes in winter weather. Drivers should keep their eyes moving and check their mirrors every five to eight seconds to detect threats from the sides and rear early. By allowing space to maneuver their vehicle away from potential problems, drivers are more likely to be able to avoid crashes or other problems by leaving themselves an out. 

A slower speed allows time for them to react to complicated driving environments and determine what their best move will be. The faster the weather situation is changing, the more important it is for drivers to have time and space to react to it.  When conditions become too hazardous, it’s best for drivers to take a break until the roads are safer.

These important steps to safer winter driving are also critical components of The Smith5Keys® principles, the pillars of the Smith System driver safety training.

Winter Weather Warnings

Even professional drivers need to be reminded of the additional challenges they face during winter. This will help ensure that safety is top of mind every time they get behind the wheel. While it’s important to feel safe and confident while driving, it’s equally important not to become overconfident in severe weather conditions. Believing that good driving skills can compensate for bad weather is a dangerous gamble, so make sure your drivers know that maintaining their safety — and the safety of the drivers around them — is always their top priority. 

Safe driving begins long before a driver gets behind the wheel. Drivers should carry tire chains, a small shovel, flares and an ice brush in their vehicle so they are prepared for changing conditions. Prior to getting on the road, checking to be sure headlights, turn signals and brake lights are visible is critical for ensuring the driver’s vehicle can be seen. If you’d like to teach your drivers how to adjust their driving habits to changing conditions, Smith System’s Driving Weather video course can help. They’ll learn how to protect themselves, their vehicles and other drivers using The Smith5Keys methodology. 

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