‘Slow down, think ahead’ go long way to avoiding ditches, disasters in snow
CAPITAL REGION That whole “winter wonderland” thing just doesn’t extend to the roads. When snow blankets the landscape, thoroughfares can become a nightmare.
Commuters likely will face that scenario today, with meteorologists forecasting anywhere from 5 inches to more than a foot of snow to fall by this evening.
Ten tow trucks were standing at the ready Wednesday afternoon at Bobar’s Interstate Towing Ltd. in Schenectady. Owner Danny Rubin predicted the phone would start ringing as soon as the snow began to fall.
“They see a snowflake, they forget how to drive,” he joked. During a snowstorm, his company gets between 60 and 70 requests for towing in a 12-hour period.
He offered motorists these tips to avoid having to make that call:
“Drive slow, and if you don’t need to drive, don’t. Keep your wipers cleaned off and your headlights on. If you see a tow truck or any emergency vehicle, move over and slow down.”
Retired New York State Police driving instructor Thomas Winterstein of Scotia recently published a how-to manual, “The Making of a Safe Driver,” to help drivers navigate the roads safely in all seasons.
Quoting an analogy he’d borrowed, Winterstein compared driving in winter weather to playing basketball on an ice rink: It’s impossible to make sudden starts, stops and changes of direction.
His advice: replace worn tires, preferably with snow tires, and when driving in snow and ice, start slowly, allow extra time to slow down and come almost to a stop before trying to change direction.
“Slow down” is Winterstein’s winter driving mantra. In his opinion, it’s the No. 1 solution to all winter driving issues. The second best way to avoid them: “Go to Florida.”
Right after the first significant snowfall, Winterstein, who teaches the National Safety Council Defensive Driving Course, suggested that drivers go to an empty parking lot, and “do a little slipping” to get a feel for how the car handles in the snow.
“You don’t go doing donuts and all those kinds of things,” he said, but instead suggested driving in a circle at no more than 10 miles per hour, without letting up on the gas. Even at that slow speed, the car will slide.
Then, go around the same circle at the same speed a second time, and when you feel the vehicle start to slide, let off the gas and the sliding will diminish, he predicted.
Winterstein also recommended slamming on the brakes while driving slowly in the parking lot, to become familiar with what it feels like to have the car’s anti-lock brake system activate. Four-wheel drive and traction control systems are comforting features to have, but Winterstein said people often use them as an excuse to go faster than they should on slippery roads.
Rubin, whose company services motorists stranded on the Thruway, agreed.
“We get a lot off in the ditch from just driving too fast. They think their four-wheel-drive means they’re unstoppable and it doesn’t. Ninety percent of your vehicles are four-wheel-drives off in the ditch,” he noted.
Black ice sends plenty of cars sliding off the road because it’s hard to spot. To determine whether the road is icy, Winterstein recommended looking at the tires of the car you’re following. If no road spray is coming off of them, that’s a good indicator that the road is frozen. Another way to check is to roll down the driver’s side window and touch the back of the side-view mirror. If it’s icy, the road probably is too.
Winterstein also recommended considering alternate driving routes during bad weather. “We’re creatures of habit. We tend to take the same roads all the time.”
He suggested taking as many main roads as possible, since they usually get plowed and sanded first.
To prepare for the possibility of getting stuck in a snowbank or ditch, Winterstein recommended stocking the car with a blanket, gloves, an ice scraper and brush, a small shovel, jumper cables, a flashlight and a tow strap. When traveling in rural areas, pack nonperishable food, water and a sleeping bag.
DWI defense attorney Peter Gerstenzang of Delmar drives about 35,000 miles each year for work and has had his share of run-ins with nasty winter driving conditions.
One thing he said he never leaves home without is extra windshield washer fluid. Running out can cause visibility issues when dirty, salty road spray hits the windshield.
During the holidays, the dangers of driving in wintery weather can be amplified by excess alcohol consumption, he noted.
“You really need an extra level of alertness when you’re dealing with the snow because there’s just so many things that are very difficult to predict because they’re out-of-the-usual. You don’t usually expect to lose traction and go into a skid,” Gerstenzang said. “There is no safe amount that you can drink and drive. You don’t want to be in an accident and be asked by a police officer how much you’ve had to drink. You want to be able to say, ‘Nothing. I’m the designated driver.’ It’s just too big a risk to be involved, because an ordinary accident can turn into a crime when you add alcohol.”