Rules of the Road

Road Rules: Tips for driving in winter Whatcom weather

Cars drive down a slushy Holly Street on Feb. 23, 2014, in downtown Bellingham. Good car maintenance and slower speeds are key to driving safely in bad winter weather.
Cars drive down a slushy Holly Street on Feb. 23, 2014, in downtown Bellingham. Good car maintenance and slower speeds are key to driving safely in bad winter weather. The Bellingham Herald

As I watched my neighbor scrape ice from her windshield I realized it’s probably time to review the topic of winter driving. Mt. Baker Ski Area has opened, the freezing level is dropping, and we’ve already had some flooded roads. Here comes winter weather.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone from Minnesota about winter driving, you’ve probably heard the ridicule about how Washington doesn’t have a “real” winter. And that’s exactly the problem.

In wintery parts of the country people prepare for the inevitable ice and snow. Here we often get caught off-guard by a storm system that blows in, makes a mess of things, and then melts away two days later. And unlike places that stay frozen for weeks at a time, we have weather that fluctuates between just below and just above freezing, creating the slippery hazard of a thin layer of water on top of a layer of ice. I’ve seen a parked car slide off the road in those conditions.

With the change in the weather there are a few things to keep in mind to successfully navigate roads in winter. Let’s start with the car. Car maintenance is important to safety, and in poor weather well-functioning brakes, wipers, defroster, heater and tires become even more critical. Tire tread depth affects traction and braking distance, and while the minimum legal tread depth of 2/32 of an inch works on dry pavement, performance suffers in rain or snow.

Don’t forget that the braking capability of an all-wheel-drive is no better than a two-wheel-drive.

A full tank of gas and an emergency kit with food, water and a blanket will be handy in the unfortunate event of getting stuck or having to take a longer route because of road closures.

When driving, keep in mind that speed limit signs are intended for good road conditions. In bad weather, the appropriate speed may be much slower. Drivers of all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles might feel confident driving close to the speed limit, but don’t forget that the braking capability of an all-wheel-drive is no better than a two-wheel-drive.

There are some roads in our region that are vulnerable to flooding, and water over a roadway is much more dangerous than it appears. It only takes 12 inches of fast-moving water to carry away a small car. Over half of flood-related deaths occur when a vehicle drives into hazardous floodwater. Also, even with just a few inches of water, erosion can wash away sections of road, leaving dangerous unseen holes.

Sometimes when the weather gets bad the best decision is to park the car. The impact of lousy road conditions range from inconvenient to disastrous, so consider using the stormy weather as an excuse to stay home and get a bit of rest during the busy holiday season.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030.

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