DIY: Fix Tomorrow's Frozen Commute

Most traffic headaches can be avoided with a little pre-planning & good driving


DENVER (Oct. 23, 2019) – With Winter Storm Watches stretching from the Jefferson County Foothills to the Palmer Divide and forecasts calling for up to 8 inches in some areas, motorists should plan ahead for a challenging Thursday morning drive – with snow beginning to fall in some areas before commuters leave work on Wednesday. 

That's the bad news. The good news? The most significant traffic headaches, even at a regional level, are avoidable – just as long as drivers take some time to prepare before they head out and drive deliberately once they hit the road. It's not the weather that causes the traffic jams. It's the crashes, most of which are completely preventable . 

Here's some do-it-yourself tricks to improve your winter weather commute for you – and for everybody with whom you share the road. 

If you can avoid driving, avoid driving – especially when it's busy.

  • Stay in: If you don't absolutely have to drive in wintry conditions, don't drive. Most snow is expected to fall Wednesday night through Thursday morning, with the storm clearing completely by mid-Thursday. Appointments that can be re-scheduled for later in the day, should be.
  • Stagger start:  It almost goes without saying: The easiest way to both avoid traffic and creating traffic is to stay clear of the roads when everybody else is on them. If your employer offers staggered start times or work-from-home opportunities, look into those to avoid the morning rush. 
  • Early or later: A good rule of thumb is to plan to arrive to work much, much earlier or much, much later than you normally would. 

Before You Head Out

  • Time: The only way to drive safely in snow and ice is to drive slowly. Budget extra time for your morning commute. Even if traffic jams are minimal, it will take you longer to get to work because you will need to move more slowly – so avoid creating extra stress by budgeting at least twice the commute time.
  • Parking brake: Avoid parking with your parking brake before and in cold, rainy or snowy weather. It can get frozen and may not disengage. For automatic transmissions, simply shift into park. For manual transmissions, shift into first gear when parking facing downhill or front-in and reverse when parking  facing uphill or back-in.
  • Wipers: Your wiper blades have been warning you for months that they're not ready for winter by streaking, screeching, or bouncing around on the glass. New wiper blades are among the cheapest pieces of safety-critical equipment you can purchase for your vehicle. They take only a couple of minutes to swap out, and most auto parts stores will do that for you immediately after purchase. Make sure you've got wiper fluid that won't freeze in winter, and plenty of it. After all, if you can't see clearly, you can't drive safely. 
  • Snow-covered car: If your car was parked outside during the storm, completely clear off all snow and ice before heading out. That means the windshield, your windshield wiper nozzles, the windows, the hood, the roof, the trunk, the mirrors and even the running boards. Everything. Why? When you start moving, that snow and ice will start moving with you. Once dislodged, it can seriously impair your ability to see – and even fly off and endanger other motorists . Why take the risk?
  • Gas: Keep your gas tank at least half full to prevent a gas line freeze-up and potential long-term issues with your fuel pump. You'll be glad you have the extra gas in an emergency situation, to boot. 
  • Tires: If your low tire pressure warning light came on, fill up your tires to the level recommended by your manufacturer (in your owner's manual or on your door jamb). This is the recommended level specifically for cold weather, so you'll want to fill up before heading out and after your car has been sitting for a while. If you can't fill your tires at home, stop to fill them up before your commute. This light comes on specifically to warn you that you might not have enough pressure for the road conditions, so don't ignore it. If, once filled, your tires fail the quarter test for tread, it's time for new tires. Avoid driving, especially in wintry conditions, until you have them.

On the Road

  • Gradual start: You have the greatest traction just before the wheels spin. Gentle pressure on the accelerator pedal when starting from a stop is the best method for retaining traction and avoiding skids. If your wheels start to spin, let up on the accelerator until traction returns. Do not use cruise control. 
  • Go slow: No matter what type of vehicle you have or what type of tires you're riding, it's plainly unsafe to drive as quickly as you would in dry conditions. Normal following distances for dry pavement (three to four seconds) should be increased to eight to 10 seconds. Give yourself even more space (12-15 seconds or more) if you are new to winter driving.
  • Stay in your lane: On a four-lane highway, stay in the lane that has been cleared most recently. Avoid changing lanes because of potential control loss when driving over built-up snow between lanes. 
  • Steering: At speeds above 25mph, steering is the preferred way to avoid a crash – as less distance is required to steer around an object than to brake to a stop. In slick conditions, sudden braking can lead to a loss of control.
  • Know your environment: Shaded spots, bridges, overpasses, and intersections are where you'll most likely find the slipperiest ice. Even if your commute was dry and manageable in parts, it is likely you will encounter ice along the way – so focus your attention as far ahead as possible and slow down as much as possible before driving over likely ice patches. 
  • Manage a skid: If you lose traction and begin to skid, stay calm to regain control of your vehicle. Always steer in the direction you want the front of the vehicle to go. Do NOT slam on the brakes, which will make it harder to regain control. 
  • Put the phone away: Put your phone in the glovebox, or, if used for navigation, in a secure mount. Do not read or send text messages, place a call, check social media, browse the internet, or adjust your GPS directions while moving. Distracted driving is always dangerous driving, and doubly so when challenging conditions demand your absolute attention at all times. 

About AAA Colorado
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