Monday, January 27, 2014

How to drive in ice and snow (if you normally don't)

Louisiana's recent cold snap has both the public and the state deeply worried about traffic safety. Only so much can be done to make all roads safe and accessible in a timely fashion in a state not used to such contingencies (though more could be done) — but much of the burden relies on individual drivers as well.

I'm a Louisiana native who bought my first new car in the middle of an ice storm in Missouri seven years ago, and now that car and I live in the mountains of Northern Nevada. So I understand as well as anyone how to survive driving icy Louisiana roads and bridges. If you need to do so and are freaking out over the prospect, please take heed.

First off, calm down. You can handle it. Drivers do it all winter long in far more inhospitable places, with roads that actually have inclines and twists. And, contrary to popular belief and though it helps in many places, we don't all do it in 4x4s. Here in Nevada, cars can generally get by with tires rated M&S, meaning they have deeper treads for mud and snow. And that doesn't become an issue until we're several inches past the worst Louisiana has to offer. So, calm down. Unless your tire treads are down to the metal, you've got this.

Ice is worse than snow. Snow is light and fluffy, which has its traffic pitfalls — but ice is what'll have you struggling to keep your balance on your way to the car, what will freeze up your vehicle and what will pose the bigger hazard on the road. And remember — snow can turn into ice.

Don't pour hot water on your icy windshield. Get a scraper or something that can pass for a scraper, like a spatula. Turn on your defroster and let it run for a few minutes to help you out (assuming you're not in a place where carbon monoxide buildup is an issue). Hot water could crack your windshield, which might lead to an even colder ride (and definitely an expensive new windshield).

Carry granola bars. Or something like that. In blizzard states, they advise you to keep packaged snacks, bottled water, blankets, snow chains, kitty litter, a shovel and similar items in the car just in case. In Louisiana, you probably won't ever need the implements, but the food is a good idea if you could conceivably get stuck at a bridge for hours at a time.

Exercise common sense while in motion. Driving along inclement roads is more a matter of common sense than anything. Drive at a comfortable and appropriate speed; apply brakes sooner and smoother; take it slower on turns and lane changes; and be particularly cautious on and under bridges. Be especially attuned to what other drivers are doing. That's half your battle right there. 

You'll probably slip at some point. I've done this regularly in Reno and Springfield, where you expect it in some ice-covered turns. (Ironically, my worst-ever skid was in Lafayette, in the rain.) It can be terrifying for the split-second that it happens. The key is to steer gently where you want to go, while easing on the brake. Hopefully, your reflexes will do this for you. Panic will only lead to overcorrection. Breathe. You'll want to be emotionally available for the good feeling of regaining control.

To reiterate: Watch those bridges! Just like they can ice in cold weather, they can also turn into a bad carnival ride underneath. In Missouri after a fresh fall, police officers park underneath bridges, hoping they don't have to play catch. If you slow down as you go under, you'll be OK. Same goes for crossing bridges. Know the potential danger.

Also to reiterate: Drive defensively. Don't assume anyone else is being as cautious as you, or maintains their car as well as you do (right?). Give wide berths whenever possible. Actually, do this all the time, because traffic idiocy is evergreen.

Read more on the topic from the experts. If something they say contradicts me, go with them. And please tell me. The School of Slippery Knocks, where I got my winter-driver education, isn't fully accredited.

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