Evening the Odds
by GD Swain
Want to seriously improve your chances of making it through winter unscathed?
The best advice available can be imparted in two words - slow down. Pure common
sense, really, but not so commonly applied. After the first flakes begin falling,
it seems to take about a month of playing bumper cars before motorists begin
adjusting their attitude - and their speed. In the meantime, you're a sitting
duck. There's nothing funny about having an impeccable abstract tainted by someone
else's bad judgment.
On the other hand, relying on someone else's reflexes to stay safe isn't a
sound approach to winter driving either. The best strategy is to buy all the
time you can: look ahead as far as you can see, get the big picture, and leave
enough space (and time) to think about what you need to do in an emergency.
In other words, ease up on the throttle.
Excessive speed really is the greatest hazard of winter, says Kirt McDougall,
one of Saskatoon-based Kindersley Transport's elite team of eight driver trainers,
"You can drive too slowly down any stretch of road for your entire career,
but you'll do it too fast only once," he says.
At Bison Transport, truck-driving simulators are an integral part of driver
development activities, and these days the simulator is being used to put drivers
into compromising situations with less than seven seconds to react. "Sometimes
even the best drivers can over-estimate their abilities," says Garth Pitzel,
director of safety and driver services for Winnipeg's Bison Transport, "Especially
in adverse conditions."
The simulator is a polite way of pointing that fact out.
Each year, Pitzel sets specific safety targets for drivers through tailored
programs, and this year the message at Bison is the "seven second rule".
It's a campaign highlighting the dangers of following too close.
Seven seconds may seem like an eternity in some situations, and the snap of
a finger in others. Low-beam headlights illuminate about 250 ft of road, which
is roughly the distance it takes to stop an average five-axle tractor/trailer
going 90 km/h on bare, dry pavement - if you're on your game. Pitzel says most
of the drivers who try the scenarios in Bison's simulator emerge amazed at how
quickly seven seconds disappears when all hell is breaking loose around them.
If it takes a second or so to realize that moose is not a fatigue-induced illusion,
then all bets are off. Most of the animals you might encounter on the highway
are nocturnal, and like you, they prefer to stay out of the deep snow in the
ditch. Some gravitate to the road to eat the salt left behind by the plow. If
you see one, chances are, there are more. Add weird weather into the mix, or
typical urban roadway tomfoolery, and seven seconds suddenly becomes a pretty
stingy safety margin.
The hazards of winter driving can be minimized if drivers are aware of what's
going on outside the cab. Cold has a predictable effect on moisture, and ice
has a predictable effect on trucks. But it's all manageable if the driver remains
Black ice is formed when moisture on the pavement freezes in a layer so thin
it's invisible. Moisture can result from rain or snow, but also dew, fog, frost,
or melting runoff from snow banks, inclined driveways and side roads. Bridges
always freeze first because there's no ground beneath the pavement to help retain
heat. A sudden drop in temperature can occur at sunset, at a change in altitude
(temperatures will drop about two degrees Celsius for every 1000 ft of altitude),
or a change in latitude if you're coming north from the south, or on a heavily
trafficked highway where the hot tires of the vehicles ahead melt blowing snow
that refreezes in the seven seconds it takes you to get to it.
If the road is wet, keep your eye on the spray from oncoming traffic, or use
your own backup lights to see if your tires are still kicking up spray or slush.
If you notice that the spray has disappeared, beware, because that means the
road is now a sheet of ice. "It is the driver's responsibility to adapt
to every road condition," says McDougall, "That's what we get paid
Freezing rain is the most demanding and dangerous condition to drive in. If
the water on your windshield begins to form clumps on your wipers, or you can
feel with your fingers a build-up on the front of your mirror, it might be a
good idea to pull over for dinner or a nap, or both.
The best strategy for ice-covered pavement is to avoid it, but if you do hit
a patch, don't panic. You could drive straight ahead on glare ice all day long.
It's when you try to make some kind of change to the speed or direction of the
truck that things go bad.
According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), highway
traffic incidents account for the most fatalities during winter storms,
but not just from collisions. Many perish from exposure and hypothermia.
Both McDougall and Rahim recommend the following items be a mandatory
personal "survival kit" kept in the cab of every truck come
- Extra water and some food that will stay fresh for a couple
- Waterproof winter clothing and extra heavy blankets
- Insulated work gloves
- Insulated rubber work gloves for wet weather
- Flashlight and batteries
- Basic tool kit (hammer, adjustable wrench, multi-tip screwdriver,
- Reading material
- Booster cables
"And make sure the driver knows how to use them properly,"
adds Rahim. McDougall stresses the importance of keeping your basic First
Aid training up to date. "Those extra blankets aren't just for you,"
he points out. "I have yet to meet a veteran driver who hasn't been
first on the scene of an accident at least once in their career."
Try to avoid braking or hard acceleration. As long as the wheels are turning
freely on the slippery surface, they won't break traction. Turning can have
a similar effect. When possible, roll across the ice without making any control
input changes, but if you must, do it gently.
If you do break traction and begin to slide on the ice, Gus Rahim, general
manager of the recently christened Canadian Centre for Decision Driving (CCDD)
in Grand Bend, Ontario says your best bet is to pick the spot you want the truck
to go, never take your eyes off it, and steer toward it without braking or accelerating.
"Look where you want to go and drive through it with your foot off the
throttle," he says. "If there is an obstacle like a car in your path,
do not become fixated on the object you're trying to avoid. Any brake application
is the worst thing you can do in slippery conditions."
CCDD is the first facility of its kind in the province, offering skid pad training
for professional drivers. "The best way to teach skid recovery," Rahim
chuckles, "is to learn skid avoidance. We teach that too, but a driver
has to know what it feels like to lose control before they can learn how to
find it again."
Some folks figure the safest place to be in a snow storm is behind a plow, but
that's only because you're going slower than you want to, which is why you caught
up to it in the first place. The plow blade actually removes most of the traction
from the road surface so salt from its spreader can work on the ice below. Salt
melts from the top down, which means there's a thin layer of water on the surface
of the shiny snow left in the wake of a plow. And if it's cold enough, say 20
below - like when you can see the plume of diesel exhaust stretching past the
end of your trailer - even salted surfaces can refreeze almost instantly. Use
caution when changing lanes or passing behind a plow - the windrows can be deadly.
Diesel engines are designed to provide maximum torque at the low end of the
operating range, somewhere around 1100-1300 rpm. If your drive wheels keep sliding
out to the side when you're getting started, try starting in a higher gear.
If you find yourself skipping up a hill or fishtailing when you're hard on the
throttle at low rpm try running in a lower gear at a higher rpm. Downshift a
gear and keep the rpm well above your peak torque range, say around 1800-2000
rpm. You might also want to make decelerating downshifts at a lower rpm than
usual in order to keep the drives from locking up when you release the clutch
- and use your engine brake with discretion. If you're relying on your ABS to
keep you in a straight line, just remember that while you'll stop in a straight
line, it'll take longer to do so.
If you try to cut a line on the inside of a corner or exit ramp, centrifugal
force can push you out onto the ruts of compressed ice where there is no traction.
Try to keep your tires on the snowline at the outside of the ruts in corners.
Same thing can be said for going up and down hills: stay out of the ruts and
keep your rubber on the snow.
Despite nature's best efforts, we've managed to thwart at least some of the
hazards, like frozen fluids. Frank Brun, Shop Supervisor for Ryder Logistics
and Transportation in Weston, Ont. says it's vital to drain your air tanks daily
in cold weather, even if the truck is equipped with an air dryer and an alcohol
evaporator. And forget about using alcohol as a fix-it for frozen air lines.
"Methyl hydrate in the air system will dry out the seals and wreck the
desiccant in the dryer," warns Brun. He doesn't recommend using it as a
fuel conditioner either, it'll wreck your injectors.
Never allow your fuel tanks to get below one-quarter full. Also, be mindful
of the difference between winter and summer fuel if, for example, you need to
fill up in Vancouver before heading back to Calgary. The summer blends available
in warmer climates may not be up to the challenge of a really cold winter day.
A couple of final things. Your pre-trip inspection is a good time to top up
the windshield washer and clean your glass, lights, and license plates.
Remember that the new LED lights generate no heat as do incandescent lights.
They won't melt away the caked snow picked up in a storm so you'll be invisible
from behind. If you have room to play with your weight distribution, you might
want to slide your 5th-wheel forward and/or trailer bogies back to put as much
weight on your steer and drive axles as legally allowed. Make sure your 5th-wheel
is clear of ice and snow before you pin to a trailer.
Don't pull off onto just any freshly plowed shoulders. What looks like an inviting
spot to stop might be an optical illusion created by the wing blade of a road
grader. Only pull off the pavement in places where you know the ground is solid
enough under the snow to support your weight.
A friend once cautioned me never to drive faster than my guardian angel could
fly, so keep in mind that your guardian angel has to fly through the same weather
you drive in. No load is worth your life, or anyone else's. And here's a final
bit of advice: do lots of sit-ups before winter sets in - that way, if you have
to duck and kiss your butt goodbye, you'll be in good enough shape to do it.