When the wind is howling and it’s pouring down, all you want to do is stay indoors under a cozy blanket. But sometimes you have to venture out and put on the appropriate jacket to prepare for whatever the weather has in store for you. If you are heading out in your car, be it through rain, snow, ice or heavy winds, preparation is even more important.
Some 23% or over 1.3 million vehicle crashes in the US are weather-related and they kill an average of 6,250 people and injure more than 480,000 every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
If you think this doesn’t concern you because you don’t live in the hurricane belt, think again. Extreme weather conditions can occur anywhere and sometimes you will have to deal with multiple types at once. NHTSA data show that three-quarters of weather-related accidents happen on wet pavement. Almost half are connected to rainfall (46%) and almost as many to winter conditions (43%).
Let’s take a look at what kind of precautions you can take. We will start with some general advice, then target the most common problems and round off with the truly extreme.
Visibility, Maintenance and Zen
Rule number one: If you cannot see and you cannot be seen, don’t drive.
Keeping an adequate distance behind the vehicle in front of you is key. If the weather conditions are good and you’re driving a small car, you will need a distance of about 3-5 seconds. A larger vehicle will need more time to stop. If you are driving in heavy traffic, increase your distance to 4-6 seconds. If the weather is bad, expand it to 6-8 seconds. This will give you time to react and your car time to stop. If you are driving in ice and snow, you may need up to 960-2,400 feet to come to a complete halt.
If the sun is bright, wear sunglasses and use the sun visor. If it’s raining or snowing, use your windshield wipers. Use your high-beam headlights when driving in the dark, as long as there is no oncoming traffic in the vicinity. However, if you’re driving in heavy snow, it is better to use you low beams to reduce reflection from the snow.
Maintain your vehicle. Make sure your lights, mirrors, windows and windshield wipers are clean. Check the tread and inflation of your tires. Keep your brakes in good condition. Pack an emergency kit with water, non-perishable food, blankets, a flashlight and a first aid kit.
Don’t forget your personal condition. If you are tired or your fellow drivers are making you angry, it’s better to pull over for a nap or a short meditation session. Whatever you need to relax and be more alert. And of course, put your phone away.
If the weather gets bad, switch off the cruise control. You are better off being in full control of the car.
Rain and Wet Roads
When driving in wet conditions, remember to keep it smooth. No hasty acceleration. No harsh steering. And no slamming on the brakes. Here are a few of the dangerous situations you may face and what to do about them:
- Hydroplaning: You may lose traction if your tires go through a patch of standing water. Take your foot off the gas pedal to reduce your speed. Don’t make any sudden steering movements.
- Initial rainfall: When it is just starting to rain, the water can make the road extra slippery as it mixes with the oils already present. Slow down and increase your following distance.
- Freezing rain: Pay attention to the outside temperature. The road surface on bridges and overpasses will freeze before the rest of the road does, so be extra cautious.
- Flash floods: Find another route. You don’t know what is under the surface of standing water. In fact, the water may have flushed away some of the pavement. One foot of water will cause many vehicles to float. Two feet of moving water will carry away most vehicles. If you get stuck in water, leave your car and get to safety, if possible. If it’s too dangerous to leave your vehicle, climb on the roof and try to signal someone for help.
Snow and Ice
Before you head out in cold weather, make sure your emergency kit is up to date and that you have more than half a tank of gas. If you break down, you may need it to keep the car heated. Here are some specific situations and how to deal with them:
- Driving in snow: Reduce your speed by half. On a 60 mph-road, the safe driving speed in snow is 30 mph. If you’re looking at slush and ice, reduce your speed by two-thirds, to 20 mph.
- Black ice: Normally, asphalt has a dull, black color. If you are approaching a shiny patch, you may be heading for black ice. If you hit black ice, don’t overreact. You want to do as little as possible and allow your vehicle to travel over the patch. Don’t hit the brakes or make any sudden turns.
- Skidding: Try to avoid skidding by slowing down and easing into any curves or turns. If you start to skid, gently turn your steering wheel in the same direction as the pull. If possible, shift into a lower gear and head for areas with more traction. If you have Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) brakes, apply firm pressure with your foot. If not, pump the brakes gently. Remember not to try to struggle against the skidding, as the risk of spinning uncontrollably increases.
What to do in other types of weather…
Fog: If you have to drive, use your low-beam headlights, increase your following distance and keep an eye on the red taillight of the person in front of you.
Hot weather: If the dashboard gauge indicates your engine’s coolant temperature is running too hot, switch off the air conditioning and increase your temperature to the highest setting. This will draw some of the heat away from the engine. If the vehicle begins to overheat, pull over immediately. If you are stuck in traffic, put the car in park and lightly step on the gas to circulate coolant. Never try to remove the radiator cap or pour cold water over the radiator. Remember never to leave children or pets inside the car when you leave, even if the outside temperature seems fine. On a sunny day, when the outside temperature is 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the inside of a car can reach 104 degrees in only thirty minutes and 113 degrees after one hour.
High winds: High winds can be particularly dangerous if you are driving a high-sided vehicle or towing a trailer, according to Traffic Scotland. Keep a careful eye on large vehicles on the road. Pay extra attention when crossing a bridge or an overpass, passing gaps in trees or driving through tunnels and mountain areas. If you feel a gush of wind, keep your hands firmly on the steering wheel and slow down.
Hurricanes: Avoid driving, but if you do and the situation intensifies, try to find shelter for you and your vehicle. The same logic applies here as when driving in rain and heavy winds, according to New World Climate. Drive slowly. Keep your distance. And pay close attention to your surroundings. A tall car is more easily affected by winds, and deep water can hide dangers. Pay particular attention to unstable trees and damaged electrical wires.
Tornadoes: Vehicles are not safe during a tornado, so your best option is to take shelter, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). If you have time and you can determine the movement of the tornado, drive away from it in a right angle. This means south, if the tornado is heading east. If you cannot escape, get out of your car and take refuge in a ditch. If you are forced to stay in your car, keep your seatbelt on and cover your head to protect it from glass. Do not take shelter under an overpass where winds can be stronger, according to NOAA.
Hail: If you encounter a severe hail storm, try to park in a safe area, preferably with shelter, says the British motoring services company RAC. Do not get out of the car. If there is a risk of a tornado, don’t stop your car under an overpass. Park your car in an angle, so that the hail is hitting its front. Windshields are reinforced and much less likely to break than side- and rear-facing windows. Stay on the side of the road, but don’t park in a ditch as water may rise suddenly.
Lightning: You are safer in your car than outside of it during a severe thunderstorm, but keep the windows closed. Typically, lightning will either strike the car’s antenna or along its roofline. The lightning then passes through the vehicle’s outer metal shell, through the tires to the ground, according to NOAA. This may damage your car—we’re talking anything from a melted antenna to shattered windows or a devastating vehicle fire.
Landslides and mudslides: Avoid areas known for landslides such as steep mountain areas or deep river valleys. Monitor your surroundings for signs of landslides, such as collapsed pavement, mud and rocks, as advised by the National Landslide Hazards Program. Remember that bridges may wash away and that embankments are particularly susceptible to mudslides. Do not drive through a flooded area.
Brush fire: Avoid driving in fire areas, as your car will not give you much protection from radiant heat. But if you are driving, and you are surrounded by fire, you should not leave your vehicle and run, according to the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Australia. They recommend that you park behind a solid structure to block as much radiant heat as possible. If there is no such structure, do the opposite and pull over in a clear area, away from any debris that may ignite. Close your car windows and vents, turn on your headlights and leave the engine running and the air conditioning on. Get down below window level and cover up with a dry woolen blanket. Drink water to keep hydrated and leave the car once the fire has passed.
Earthquakes: If you’re in your car when an earthquake strikes, pull over to the road shoulder as fast as you can. Don’t stop near anything that can fall on you, for example trees or buildings; if you’re driving on an overpass, don’t stop before you are on solid ground, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Turn off your engine, lock your wheels with the parking break and cover your head. When the earthquake is over, you can drive on, but do so carefully as the road may be damaged and aftershocks may follow.
Much of the information found in this article comes from Driver’s Alert’s online training course “Extreme Driving Conditions — Small Vehicles.”
About the Author
Eva Nyman grew up in Finland, but has lived in Belgium, France and Hungary. She holds a degree in journalism and communication from the University of Helsinki and has worked as a reporter for ten years. She feeds her fascination with history and current affairs with books and her love of nature with hikes. She’s passionate about traveling, particularly slow journeys, and her dream is to visit every corner of the world.
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