Winter driving safety

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Stephanie Morris
  • Minot Air Force Base Public Affairs
Nov. 11, marked the first measurable snowfall on base this year.

With an average snowfall of approximately three feet the previous winter, which lasted for six to seven months with winds averaging 20 mph, Minot's weather poses many unique challenges -- not only to those working in the elements, but to Airmen making their daily commute.

"The average maximum temperature from November to April is 29 degrees, and the lowest wind chill last year was negative 72 degrees," said Senior Airman Daniel Cantieri, 5th Operational Support Squadron weather forecaster. "As little as one-fourth of an inch of snow combined with 15 mph winds can create whiteout conditions, which render visibility to zero."

In addition to harsh elements, drivers also need to be on the lookout for snow removal equipment: 20-foot-wide airfield plows and brooms, smaller street plows, graders and sanders.

"The brooms on the front of airfield plows take-up most of the road and don't give drivers much time or room to move over," said Richard Matheson, 5th Civil Engineer Squadron engineering equipment supervisor. "Because of this, motorists should pull over as far as they safely can, slow down when meeting these snow vehicles and keep in mind that they will need extra room to turn at an intersection."

Plows and brooms are put to work as soon as there is enough accumulation of snow for the plows to be able to start picking it up, Matheson said. It is best for drivers to be patient and keep a bit of distance when following the street plows.

"Operators have a lot to concentrate on while driving, like where their plow is, the traffic around them, intersections, stop signs, working the cab controls and blind spots in the cab," Matheson said. "If a person has to pass, they should do it cautiously and try to make sure the operator knows they are coming around as the plow may turn to push the snow out of the way and not see the vehicle."

Because of Minot's difficult weather conditions and having the presence of large equipment, safe driving techniques are essential for travelling the winter landscape on-and-off base, explained Dan Heald, 5th Bomb Wing safety and occupational health technician.

"Although it may seem a bit intimidating at first, it doesn't take much time for first-time winter drivers to learn to properly tackle snow-packed and icy roads in the local area," Heald said.  "Patience is key when heading out on winter roads for the first time. Many people end up in accidents each year because they drive too fast for the conditions."

Heald suggests that drivers keep in mind the following steps when snow and ice start to appear on roadways:

· Have a winter survival kit in your vehicle.
· For maximum power when starting cars in cold temperatures, turn off all accessories, including the radio and heater, before turning the ignition key. 
· Don't pump the gas pedal as this may flood the engine. 
· Don't over grind the starter; it can damage it.
· Let the engine run for at least a minute before driving.
· Avoid packed snow on hills, take curves slowly and don't accelerate or decelerate abruptly.
· Slow down before approaching an intersection.  Scan left, then right, then left again for pedestrians and vehicles on cross streets. 
· If your vehicle becomes stuck, don't hold down the gas pedal. This will cause the wheels to dig in deeper. Instead, keep the wheel straight and alternate between drive and reverse to "rock" the vehicle free.

Not all vehicles handle the same in winter weather conditions, Heald explained.  This makes it important for drivers to know how to handle their vehicle in demanding winter weather. 

He also said it's a good idea for people to carefully practice slow speed maneuvers on an empty snow or ice-covered parking lot, and the vehicle owner's manual also outlines handling characteristics.

Front-wheel-drive vehicles generally handle better than rear-wheel-drive on slippery roads, because the engine's weight rests on the driving wheels to improve traction.  The back end of rear-wheel-drive vehicles, especially pick-up trucks, tend to slide from side-to-side when turning on icy roads.  To compensate, people with rear-wheel-drive should add weight in the trunk or truck bed to give the wheels more grip.

Intersections are another important area to be cautious, Heald said.  Prepare for drivers sliding into intersections from the side then decide if it is safe to proceed through the intersection or if you should stop to avoid hitting another vehicle. 

"The most important thing to remember when driving in winter conditions is to go slow and drive within you and your vehicle's capabilities," Heald said. "Be patient with other drivers, and realize that many people come to Minot from warmer climates and might have never driven in snow before. A good rule of thumb is, if you are passing a lot of North Dakota license plates on Hwy 83, you are probably going too fast for the conditions."