With winter weather underway in parts of the country it’s time to start thinking about winter driving procedures. While I’m not writing this article to tell anyone how to drive their truck, there are certain things many of us already know and do during inclement weather but don’t really think about until we are in the thick of it. A good habit is to begin practicing them early on while weather conditions are still favorable so that when the time comes you’re already doing the right things by habit.
This 2-part series is aimed at newer drivers who have limited winter driving experience to help put them on a path to safety and success in the coming months. In Part 1 we covered preparation. Part 2 looks at various aspects of driving in winter conditions.
There are four basic types of road surfaces that we drive on daily. And each has different grip characteristics when there is rain, snow or ice present. In order, best to worst:
- Freshly laid asphalt. The surface is rather coarse and provides maximum grip and excellent drainage.
- Worn in asphalt. This surface still has good grip overall, holds salt and other de-icing chemicals well and still allows for rain or melting snow to pass through.
- Freshly paved concrete. The surface still has some roughness for tires to bite into when braking and cornering. Concrete will use runoff as its primary method of drainage.
- Polished (worn) concrete. This is concrete that has been worn smooth over the years. This has the least traction and the worst drainage of the four types of road surfaces. This may seem like a minor consideration, but when roads get sloppy in bad weather, the little things can be the difference between an uneventful safe trip, and a catastrophe.
Crete Carrier’s standard policy does not require a driver to use chains, though you must carry chains in some states. The decision to use chains is up to the individual driver. I prefer waiting until the road surface has been cleared enough to run without them. I’d rather reschedule a delivery than risk even a minor accident—and the downtime that follows—which is where the real cost to the driver occurs.
The following tips are the ones I personally use in inclement winter weather and though I’ll never remember them all while writing this piece, I hope they will be of use to some of you that may have limited experience.
- First and foremost—know what you are going to be driving into BEFORE you get there. Part of your winter trip plan and pretrip should be using weather apps to check the outlook for bad weather ahead. Check various cities along your route and look at the daytime and nighttime temperatures. Take a thorough look at radar to see if it’s even safe to proceed. You may want to look at an alternate route to avoid the worst of it. Once you’ve decided to take off, make sure you’ve also considered where you could stop if the weather deteriorates. If you are going to stop it’s better to make that choice before you get into the thick of it or there may be nowhere left to safely park when you get there.
- Think about the load you are carrying. How much weight do you have? Is it low or high centered? Do you have to deadhead to the next customer? How will the current weather conditions affect your drive? Needless to say, a moderately loaded trailer is going to provide better traction than an empty one. You should also consider tread depth on your drive tires.
- If you decide to go ahead and run, SLOW THINGS DOWN. There is no such thing as “I can’t be late.” NO LOAD here at Crete is so important that your safety takes a backseat to on-time delivery. The load needs to get there safely 100% of the time. If you are going to be delayed, be proactive and communicate with your asset manager at the earliest safe opportunity and give them the information they need to make appointment changes or other arrangements in a timely matter. I can’t give drivers any prepackaged formula for how much to slow down in the snow, or never go faster than (XX) mph on ice as conditions change from moment to moment. It is something that comes with experience and knowing your limitations—just take things slow. And of course, never follow another driver who is driving faster than you feel comfortable with.
- Watch the outside temperature closely. Our trucks have the temperature sensor mounted up on the bottom of the mirrors and there can be a fair difference between the temperature of the air six feet off the ground and at the surface of the roadway. In the morning the air temperature may warm above freezing while the roadway remains well below the freezing point. Stay focused on the changing conditions.
- Know the type of snow. The colder it is the drier the snow can be. A little trick I like to use when driving in very cold snowfall is to keep the defroster on and use the A/C to attempt to freeze my glass. When snow hits a warm windshield, it melts and then tries to refreeze and stick to it. If the windshield is very cold, the snow can often times hit and break up and just slide right off. A coating of Rain-X is always a plus if you have the opportunity to apply it before taking off. If you do get a buildup of ice and snow it will be easier to remove from a treated windshield.
- Adjust your stopping distance. Remember that you need a lot more space in front of you to slow down for ramps, stop lights and other braking needs. Allow at least 3 times the normal distance.
- When taking off from a start I always use first gear and as I progress upwards through the gears, I keep a very light pressure on the throttle. A slow and steady acceleration is all I need to get up to speed. I always make very small adjustments in pressure on the pedal either up or down. Pressing down or letting up suddenly can cause me to lose traction. The same goes for braking. I first ease off the throttle until I’m coasting and then apply just enough brakes to start slowing down—and do so early so I remain in full control. When approaching stop lights in urban situations assume you’ll need to stop. Be prepared to come to a complete stop before you reach the intersection and then roll slowly up to it for the final stop.
- When approaching an underpass or an overpass be mindful that these areas can freeze and become slick before the rest of the roadway. I ease back very slightly on the throttle as I approach them so there’s no torque being applied to my drive tires when I cross them and can avoid a loss of traction.
- Some may differ on this practice, but when driving on snow-covered highways, I like to run my tires slightly on the thicker snow pack instead of the crushed down snow which may become icy. I have found that this often provides more traction.
- Keep a close eye on your mirrors during rain or snow on treated roads and watch for spray—or the lack of it—coming from your trailer tires. If temperatures are dropping and it is raining, it may be the only indication that the roads have gone from just being wet to freezing up and becoming black ice.
True tale of black ice. I ran across a horrible situation in Nebraska heading to Iowa during a freezing rain situation. Everything was going well as the roads had been salted and treated with chemicals. It was a dark night and I was travelling at a reduced speed. I had plenty of spray and no issues at all. Then suddenly my truck started to drift toward the shoulder and a bridge abutment. The road was no longer treated and had become solid black ice. It was all I could do to gently come off the throttle and try to use tiny steering inputs to get the tractor to turn away from its course. I was successful, but I’ll be honest, it was frightening. By the time I gained control I was under 20 mph. The road remained untreated for almost 80 miles. The fastest I could go was a mere 18mph. Other drivers had tried unsuccessfully to take off ramps and were either stuck or in the ditch beside them. The only safe option was to just continue on as slow as it took until I could get back to a treated road again. There can be times when getting off the highway simply isn’t an option. I did make it safely to the Nebraska-Iowa border, only to be met with full-on blizzard conditions. It just wasn’t my day.
- If I’m on the road in a snow or ice situation I like to occasionally apply just a tiny amount of brake pressure along with a corresponding small extra throttle and clean out the brake drums. But whenever I feel the need to use this technique I make sure there is no one beside or behind me so as not to cause anyone else to feel a need to react. Cleaning out your brake drums like this is also a good idea as you prepare to park your truck. When you do, don’t set your trailer brakes as they can freeze to the brake drums and hammering them loose is not a lot of fun.
- When it comes time to stop and park for a break I like to roll forward and back a few times to create a path for my tires when it’s time to leave. I also carry at least a 50 pound bag of snow melt to aid in traction. I also lay some down outside my driver’s door so I have a clear place to exit and enter the truck. An additional tip when it comes to parking is to try and park with the trailer doors facing the wind so the nose of the truck is not into the wind.
- Do not use your cruise control in inclement weather. With trucks now equipped with automatic cruise control that follows at a preset distance you’ll be far too close to the vehicle in front of you. If you also have adaptive braking your truck may try to apply too much braking if someone moves into your safe following distance and cause a loss of control. In bad weather all these things need to be fully under your own control.
- When it comes to the use of exhaust brakes, my advice is to slow down beforehand on minor grades and use reduced gears. When you have a downgrade coming up slowly ease your speed down to what you know the truck can hold before you begin the descent. I personally only use the first stage of my exhaust brakes as a minor assistance which comes from practice and experience. I usually try to avoid using them at all. I’d rather use gears and gentle foot braking under most circumstances. But every situation is different.
- My personal technique when it comes to rolling hills, or as I call it, a *washboard*, is to slow to what I feel will be a safe speed before going down each minor grade and then slowly accelerate near the bottom. This provides some forward momentum as I begin to climb the next hill. The benefit comes as I can allow the use of less throttle/torque on my drive tires, easing back as needed as I climb upwards again and reduce the chance of breaking traction while climbing. I feel that doing so allows me to lose speed with more control while maximizing traction during the climb. Use the terrain instead of fighting it.
- There will be times when the wind generates blowing and drifting snow. This can be even more hazardous when you are being passed by another driver with the wind blowing from your left to right. When you see another driver setting up to pass you get a good look at the lane in front of you so you have the best reference possible in case the blowing snow becomes a temporary whiteout. Ease off the throttle as they begin to pass so as to allow the other driver to get past you in as short a time as possible. It’s also a good Idea to use your four-way flashers in these situations to help the passing driver and those behind you to see you.
- CB radios aren’t as commonly used anymore but it’s good to have a CB radio on in case someone is trying to give information about the roads ahead and to share your observations with other drivers.
- Practice making lane changes in a very slow manner. Even on dry roads I treat each one of them as if I were driving on ice or snow. Very gentle and very little steering input. I have seen on 3 occasions in my years of driving another driver make a lane change as if they were on dry roads and when they tried to center their truck in the next lane it just kept right on going into the ditch. Take it slow every single time. I get myself into the habit now so it’s automatic by the time I do get into the bad weather.
- When the outside temperature drops to 34 degrees I lock in my differentials if there is any indication of precipitation on the roadway. I’d rather have them locked in and not need them than be taken by surprise.
- Be extra wary of freezing rain and freezing fog. Freezing rain can cover your truck in a solid cocoon of ice and turn the highway into a slick nightmare. Freezing fog can actually build up on your truck inches thick in some places. Both also have the sometimes costly side effect of snapping CB. Some of the stout wire ones are more durable but the fiberglass ones can break right off if you don’t knock the ice accumulation off periodically.
- As a final thought for consideration I’m going to jump into a little bit of science about air and wind. All wind is not created equal. As air cools it becomes denser. And as you reach closer to sea level air also becomes denser. So we have a compound effect that may take some people by surprise. Due to the increase in air pressure and density a 30 mph crosswind at a low elevation in very cold temperatures is going to hit you with more force than the same 30 mph wind would feel in summer temperatures at high elevations. This is a contributing factor to why we see so many trucks blown over in Wyoming. The same wind speeds you’ve driven through back in the summer and had no issues with are hitting you with considerably more force due to the increase in density. Truth is, it’s even worse when the air temperature drops and the wind kicks up in places like Iowa as well. I know it’s pretty egghead stuff, but it’s one more thing to consider when winter decides to test us. The more you know the better you can plan and prepare.
These are a few of my thoughts for drivers to consider. It is by no means a complete list of winter driving tips and procedures. Every driver’s experience is unique. The point is to share what we have learned with one another and to promote safe driving on our highways and byways. I would love to hear from others about additional tips they use, and share them on my Facebook page at “Thoughts from the Road.” Until next time, keep up the hard work and stay safe my friends.