COLUMN: How to drive on an icy highway (and, maybe, save yourself from the tailgater behind you)

Physics can be your friend – or your highway – when the snow starts to fly

It’s OK that you need to be told how to drive when the roads get a little bit slippery. I get that now.

A little bit of snow flies in the Lower Mainland rarely. And when it does, people find a way to not drive. That’s smart! But it means that when you do hit the highway, you have no freaking clue what you’re doing. It makes sense. You didn’t grow up doing donuts in a parking lot or driving up logging roads on New Year’s Day.

So this column isn’t to belittle you. You can find that plenty of places (because, let’s be a little honest, the Lower Mainland is kind of silly when it comes to snow). Instead, hopefully it helps keep you out of the ditch when you need to hit the highway in winter.

RELATED: PHOTOS: Tuesday morning’s icy commute between Chilliwack and Abbotsford

1. You need to know WHY going slow is important.

No one ever says just how slow, or why. It’s always something vague like “Exercise caution, and reduce your speed.” What you need to grasp, though, is that you’re not just going slowly for the sake of going slowly, or so the damage will be less when you inevitably crash. You’re doing it to give yourself more time to stop and turn, because you need way more time to do both. The goal isn’t to make the crash less damaging; it’s to not crash at all.

“I know that!” you say. But do you really?

Read this slowly, because Tuesday’s drive illustrated that some people don’t quite get it: If you insist on driving close behind the person in front of you, going 50 km/h on icy roads won’t allow you to avoid a crash. If you’re crawling in highway traffic in July, you can probably stick pretty close to the person in front of you. That. Does. Not. Work. In. The. Snow.

It all depends what’s in front of you. You can go a tad faster if you are driving in a straight line and there is nobody in front of you. Don’t go too fast, of course, but the point of going slow is to give you time to brake and turn, and to minimize the damage if something goes really wrong.

Physics comes into play: if you’re travelling in a straight line and are unable to stop, you’ll hit the thing in front of you. If that thing is 200 metres away, you’re going to have some time to pump those brakes. If it’s 10 metres from you, you’re probably doomed.

2. You might realize that most winter highway crashes are in the centre median.

This isn’t just because the people in the passing lane tend to be more reckless. It partly goes back to those physics: when someone tries to change lanes, they turn their wheel. Instead of pointing their car or truck down the road, they’re pointed at the median. Correcting course then becomes a big challenge; it’s usually icier between lanes, and conditions are also often worse in the passing lane.

So: If you’re changing lanes, change lanes exceptionally slowly. Yes, I know you want to get to those two tire tracks of relatively clear pavement as quickly as possible. Resist that urge. Remember, going straight is your friend, so take your time to get into that other lane.

(I drive regularly to the Interior in the winter, and this is why I prefer the Coquihalla in winter to the less-snowy Fraser Canyon. Yes, it’s slippery, but – so long as other drivers co-operate – if you’re going straight at a reasonable speed, there’s not all that much that can go wrong, simply because you’re driving in a straight-ish line.)

3. Keep an eye on your mirror.

Those people in front of you aren’t your only concern. This you know. Being able to stop in time isn’t going to save your bacon if the person behind can’t also do so. But there’s often no way to get them to leave proper room. So what do you do with a tailgater? You leave even more room in front of you.

You want to give yourself even more room to stop to allow Larry Leadfoot behind you to also get a grip. With someone on your tail, you need to start braking very gradually, very easily, so you can ease to a stop, and they can follow suit. It’s not fair, but it might keep your back bumper intact.

As for your brakes, you know that when you use them, you may skid. But they also send a message. If you see something coming up and there’s someone on your tail, start braking very slowly, very soon, to give them time to do the same.

Tyler Olsen is a reporter at the Abbotsford News

Do you have something to add to this story, or something else we should report on? Email:
tolsen@abbynews.com


@ty_olsen
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