UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020
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Driving in Hazardous Conditions
A vehicle poorly managed in inclement weather conditions can become a weapon that causes injury to other motorists, bystanders, passengers or the driver. While automobile companies have evolved safety features such as anti-lock brakes, backing sensors and deployable air bags, defensive driving strategies remain necessary for safe driving in all kinds of weather. Knowing what to do and what not to do can be the difference between arriving at your destination and being sidelined by a crash.
Driving safely in snow begins before the car actually pulls onto the roadway. Clearing all snow from the car and turning on the defroster are essential tasks. In haste, some might only clear windows and headlights of snow. This is a big mistake as snow on the hood can fall onto the windshield during driving, impairing the driver’s vision. Snow on other parts of the car can be blown by wind into the path of other drivers, creating an obstruction. As it relates to defrosting, motorists should wait until a defroster clears frost from all windows of the vehicle before beginning the driving journey.
On the road, attempt to drive in the ruts created by snowplows and other drivers. Use a low gear in order to boost your traction. Proceed slowly and brake early, even if you are in a vehicle with four-wheel drive. Refrain from locking in a speed by cruise control, as it will not allow you to respond quickly to spontaneous risks and ice patches.
If you don’t have anti-lock brakes, gently use your foot to create a quick and consistent pumping motion when braking. If you still skid, shift into neutral and try to regain control over the automobile once it slows down. Anticipate that your commuting time will double and leave home early enough to accommodate the slow-down. Stock the car with provisions such as a flashlight, blankets, change of clothing, and food in case you are stranded or become immobile on the highway for hours.
Seeing the white wintry snow on the roads is easier than seeing black ice, which can cause the most severe snow-related crashes. Black ice is a sheet of translucent ice that freezes on a dark highway creating slippery sections of roadway that are undetectable by eye. These occur most frequently on overpasses and bridges. Stick to the main roads, which tend to be better traveled and therefore less slippery.
Getting stuck in a snow bank is a great concern of many drivers. Fortunately, many motorists are helpful in pulling cars out of ruts. If you notice you are stuck, try shifting from reverse to forward in an attempt to dislodge your tires. If that doesn’t work, do not keep spinning your wheels since that will make the ruts deeper and make it even harder for you to get unstuck.
Carry a bag of kitty litter and a shovel in your car to help you dig out of ruts. Pack the kitty litter around the tires to give them something to grip onto and stop the spinning. In lieu of kitty litter, some people find mats helpful. They can be placed behind or in front of tires to create traction and move the car out of a rut. If all else fails, make sure you have opted for emergency roadside service through your insurance company so they can dispatch a tow truck at no additional expense.
The ability of tires to grip the roadway properly is impaired during a rainstorm. Oils and road debris typically build up on streets and highways, making them slick during rainy periods. This, along with standing water, can lead to skidding or hydroplaning. If your car takes flight above the road and surfs on the water, try keeping the car straight and reduce speed in order to end the hydroplaning. Do not brake severely during hydroplaning; apply soft braking until you can sense the pavement and solidly anchor the car on the ground.
Defensive driving experts recommend that drivers greatly reduce their velocity during rains as speeders trigger the most crashes during downpours. Know the typical slick areas. For example, crosswalks are notoriously slippery during rain due to the painted ground effects. Lane dividers are also slippery. Remember to hit the brakes early, as most cars will take a longer time to stop on a wet surface compared to a dry surface.
Prepare for driving in heavy rains by making sure you maintain good tires and windshield wipers. Wipers should be changed on most cars every six months. In between changes, clean with a damn cloth to remove soil. All windows should be clean inside and out before driving in rain so that glare can be reduced.
If you must drive during flooding, do not attempt to go through deep pools of water. It is better to turn around and find another direction even if you see other cars driving through the flood. Driving through flooded sections of roadway can get water in your engine and cause it to stall and become damaged. If you cannot avoid a flood, park your car and call for assistance.
Hail can come in sizes as small as a beach pebble or as large as a baseball. While small hail can create an uneven driving surface that is prone to causing skids, large hail is even worse. Large hail can cause damage to power lines and trees, causing lines and branches to fall into the road and obstruct traffic. Hail can also smash windshields, impairing the driver’s vision. If you are on the roadway when a hailstorm begins and you cannot return home, try to drive into a parking garage at a hotel, business or stadium — even if you have to pay a fee. Since hail is often produced during tornadoes, driving in hail puts you at risk of driving right into a tornado or storm.
It is best to be indoors and not to drive in tornadoes since even a large sports utility vehicle can be picked up and flung by tornado winds. Flying debris from a tornado can in fact make it impossible to drive or even see. If you find yourself on a road during a tornado, do not remain in the car and do not follow the bad advice of seeking shelter beneath an overpass. Experts say the best retreat is to flatten yourself in a ditch or similar dugout and never try to out drive a tornado.
Thick fog presents another hazardous driving condition. Sometimes fog can reduce visibility to only a few feet, preventing the viewing of traffic lights, stop signs, street signs and road obstructions. In panic, some drivers attempt to illuminate the road by turning on bright lights. This is the worst strategy for driving in fog. Only low beam lights should be employed.
In addition, drivers in fog should move along at low speeds, sometimes of between 15 and 20 miles per hour. Roll down your driver’s side window so that you can hear other drivers and their vehicles. Avoid highways during fog. If you cannot see the vehicles in front of you or behind, pull to the roadside, turn on your emergency lights, and wait for visibility to improve.
Personal technology has made driving more hazardous. In generations past, radios, food and conversation with passengers were considered the greatest distractions. Modern societies, however, face additional driving distractions from text messengers, wireless phones, MP3 players, digital book readers and in-car DVD players. According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) these distractions cause up to 50 percent of all crashes by causing people to run stop signs and miss traffic signals and oncoming cars. None of these devices should be used during driving unless certain features are enabled.
For example, phones can be safer if drivers are using blue tooth or some other hands-free device. Still, experts say answering the call and dialing can be a distraction. Most safety advocates suggest pulling to the side of the road to make a necessary phone call and avoid all other frivolous phone conversations, even if bored during a long drive. Digital book readers can be safer if they come with audio options. Texting while driving is not recommended by anyone and most states are crafting laws to make texting while behind the wheel a crime.
Electronics are not the only modern distractions. The NHTSA reports that talking to others in the car remains the biggest distraction while eating and manipulating air conditioning, heat, navigation systems, and car radios are other leading distractions. Calming and disciplining children can avert the attention of driving parents. Women and men can both be distracted by using the rear-view mirror to groom themselves.
Aggressive driving is often referred to as road rage. This can occur when drivers angrily compete with each other in terms of speed or in jockeying for position in a certain lane. Such actions can be accompanied by tailgating and ignoring traffic signals and road signs. In addition to causing crashes, this aggressive driving behavior can escalate into fist-fighting on the side of the road or worse. Psychologists suggest being polite and yielding when on the road, never taking the driving action of another motorist as a personal affront. If someone appears to be following you too closely or trying to run you off the road in aggression, call 9-1-1 from your vehicle and encourage passengers to write down a description and license plate number of the offending car.
Defensive driving tactics enable you to remain safe on the road by equipping you with the skill to respond to the spontaneous acts of other drivers. Driving is never static. Conditions always change beyond your control and split-second defensive decisions can be the difference between dying in a crash and having no crash at all. Many counties and community colleges offer their own defensive driving courses for a fee. Some even take place online using videos and driving simulation software.
Contact your local branch of the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to learn what defensive driving schools are available in your area. Courses typically last between four and eight hours. Upon completion, you often qualify for discounts on car insurance. Defensive driving courses teach how to use all the latest car safety features, how to quickly spot and adjust to a hazard on the highway, and even how to safety drive your car in reverse.
Drinking socially can often put one in a position of driving home after imbibing a couple of glasses of wine or bottles of beer. Driving while intoxicated can lead to fatal crashes, arrests, fines, and possibly jail time. One strategy to avoid the destruction related to drunk driving is to go out in a group and designate one person as the driver who will remain sober at all times. If you are alone, set the limit of your drinks to one or two and drink slowly. Also, eat protein-laden foods while you drink and socialize for at least two hours after drinking to allow you blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to decrease. If you are still impaired, call a taxi rather than drive.
All states within the US consider a BAC of .08 to be intoxicated. However, federal crash reports show that people with BACs as low as 0.02 have caused traffic accidents. Portable breathalyzers can be bought online or installed in cars to help you discern when you’ve had too much to drink. Never try an unfamiliar drink or pair the drink with any drugs if you know you’ll be driving.
Statistics show that teenage drivers crash four times as much as older drivers, with those who have just gotten their permits or license having the highest percentage of accidents. Prone to a love of extremity and adrenaline-filled risk-taking, many teens often drive too fast, brake too late, and consider road rules optional. Aside from driving with a parent, a teen should never drive with another person in the car. Groups of teens should not be in a car with a teen driver as reports show this leads to the most distractions and generates peer pressure that can cause daring acts of bravado. Teens should avoid driving in bad weather or during high traffic times, like rush hour. Novice teen drivers should stick to streets instead of highways.
Factors linked to the natural process of aging can often render elderly drivers less safe than other drivers. Cataracts and other vision problems can make it difficult for senior citizens to see the roads and traffic signs. Visibility issues can be aggravated by nighttime driving conditions and even daytime sunshine. Arthritis and other ailments that limit movement can reduce the dexterity needed to property control a vehicle. Slower cognition can make it difficult to react to the dynamic conditions of traffic, causing delays in avoiding obstructions and stopping.
While many people drive after age 80, this age period might be a good time for elderly drivers to consider giving up their licenses. Instead, they can rely on volunteers, friends, and relatives to ferry them. Public transportation often offers discounts to senior citizens. Some private transportation companies serving elderly drivers offer door-to-door taxi options for doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, and church.
Driving does not have to be an unsafe experience. Thinking and strategizing along with choosing a vehicle that meets most of the points on your safety checklist can result in a pleasant, harmless drive.