Precautions will help you weather winter’s wrath on the road

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Mike DuPre'
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Winter’s first visit last week could have been much worse for holiday drivers.

And longtime residents of the upper Midwest know that it was just the first appetizer in what can be a months-long, multicourse meal of slick streets, wind-whipped snow and treacherous black ice.

A look at accident reports from the Janesville Police and Rock County Sheriff’s departments shows that from January 2006 through September of this year, the only four months with more than 300 total accidents were during the winter: December 2006 and the first three months of 2007.

It’s time to steel yourself for the winter road miles ahead.

Driving safely in winter starts before you sit behind the wheel.

The Rock County Sheriff’s Department advises that you keep your gas tank full in case you get stuck and need to stay warm. If you are stranded, make sure to keep the area around the muffler clear while running the car, the sheriff’s department said.

The department also recommends carrying emergency supplies and your cell phone.

“Allow more time to travel,” advised Sgt. Brian Donohoue, safety officer for the Janesville Police Department. “And what we quite often see is that people don’t take the time to clean off their windshields. We will ticket for that.”

So take the time to clean your windshield and warm up your vehicle, so that the defroster is blowing warm air to keep the windshield free of internal condensation.

As a side note, though, Donohoue also warned drivers not to leave running vehicles unattended.

“We see a spike in car thefts because people leave their running cars unlocked and unattended,” he said.

OK, so now you’re behind the wheel in a warm car with a clean windshield. If it’s snowing, raining or just a generally gray day, the next thing you should do—if your vehicle doesn’t have daytime running lights—is turn on your headlights.

That’s not to improve your visibility, but to make you more visible to other drivers, Donohoue explained.

“Headlights are fabulous during daytime,” he said.

Once you’re on the road, go slow, Donohoue stressed.

And remember that it takes more distance to stop on slippery streets even if your vehicle has antilock brakes and/or four-wheel drive.

Janesville cops ticket many drivers involved in winter accidents, not necessarily for speeding, but for driving too fast for conditions, Donohoue said.

So leave more distance between you and the car in front of you than the two car-lengths that is the rule of thumb when streets are not snow- and ice-covered, he advised.

Most new vehicles are equipped with antilock brakes.

To use them correctly, keep constant, firm pressure on the brake pedal and keep steering the vehicle. The antilock system automatically pumps the brakes to prevent them from locking, so you should not pump the brakes.

If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, remember that your vehicle’s enhanced ability to move through snow and up slick hills does not improve its stopping ability. And because most four-wheel-drive vehicles are trucks or SUVs, they are heavier and take longer to stop than cars.

Automatic traction control takes power away from a slipping, spinning wheel. If both of your drive wheels—either front or back—are slipping, traction control will cut power to both.

You might then be on a hill going nowhere despite a revving engine. If you disable the traction control, the wheels will move, but they also will spin, so be careful not to accelerate too quickly or you could lose control.

Front-drive vehicles slip a lot less in slippery conditions than purely rear-drive vehicles because the bulk of the vehicle’s weight—the engine—is over the wheels that propel the vehicle, providing better traction.

Imagine an empty sled. If you pull it, it tracks behind you in a straight line. But if you try to push an empty sled, it’s difficult to keep it headed straight.

If you have a rear-drive vehicle, you can add some weight to the trunk. Bags of sand or kitty litter not only add weight but also can enhance traction when the sand is spread in front and back of your drive wheels.

Finally, if your vehicle does start to slide, turn the steering wheel into the direction of the slide. If your car’s rear end is sliding to the right, turn to the right.

Winter driving advice

From Grange Insurance and the Janesville Police and Rock County Sheriff’s departments:

-- Maintain your vehicle so it’s ready for winter. Drivers also can consider installing winter tires or all-weather tires and winter windshield wipers. Consider changing tires if your vehicle is rear drive only.

-- Carry a winter survival kit that includes windshield scraper, flashlight with extra batteries, flares, jumper cables, a first-aid kit, shovel, tow strap, blankets, warm clothing and appropriate footwear. Consider nonperishable food and sand or kitty litter to spread for better traction on slippery surfaces.

-- Don’t forget your cell phone and either a charger or fully charged battery.

-- During extreme winter weather, don’t travel unless absolutely necessary.

-- If a storm becomes too much for you to handle, seek refuge immediately.

-- If your car should be disabled, stay with the vehicle, running your engine and heater for short intervals. Be sure to open a window slightly to avoid carbon monoxide build-up.

-- Pay attention to road conditions. Remember the posted speed limit is for dry pavement, so slow down in adverse conditions.

-- Leave plenty of room for stopping. Use brakes carefully and correctly.

-- Look farther ahead in traffic than you normally do.

-- Watch for slippery bridge decks. Bridge decks and ramps ice up sooner than adjacent pavement.

-- Leave plenty of room for maintenance vehicles and plows. When approaching a snowplow, stay back at least 200 feet—it’s the law. Never pass a snowplow at night.

-- If you approach a parked emergency or maintenance vehicle during a winter storm and decide to change lanes, be careful. The passing lane might be in worse shape than the driving lane.

-- Maintain control by making slow, deliberate corrections in direction or speed.

-- Use extreme caution if you attempt to pass slow-moving traffic because snow and slush that accumulates between the lanes could cause you to lose control.

-- Don’t use your cruise control in wintry conditions. Even roads that appear clear can have sudden slippery spots, and the short tap on your brakes to deactivate cruise control can cause you to lose control of your vehicle.

-- Be aware of conditions that can change quickly and unpredictably, especially when moving to different roadways (Interstate vs. state highway, for example).

-- Know the current road conditions. Call 1-800-ROADWIS (1-800-762-3947) or visit the winter road conditions report Web page at www.dot.wisconsin.gov/travel/road/winter-roads.htm.
Snow emergencies

Two inches of snow in Janesville will trigger a snow emergency to allow clearing of city streets and municipal parking lots.

If you park on the street or in a city lot before the snow is cleared, you face a $20 ticket.

If you have questions about snow emergencies, do not call 911. Call the city’s “Snow Hot Line” at (608) 755-SNOW or access the municipal Web site at www.ci.janesville.wi.us/citysite.

Last updated: 9:49 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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