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A little preparation goes a long way on snowy roads

On his way to work last week – a day before the big storm – Spokane sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Reagan spotted a driver unable to merge onto U.S. Highway 195 because he failed to scrape his windows and mirror.

Reagan, who doesn’t normally make traffic stops, pulled the man over.

Not only was he endangering himself, but he endangered other motorists by not being able to see adequately, Reagan said. It cost the driver $124 for driving with obscured vision, plus a second citation for not having a current registration.

Reagan said the incident shows how important it is to think about safety during winter driving – from the condition of your vehicle and supplies on board to the driving techniques that can be employed to keep you out of trouble.

Thursday there were a lot of drivers who wished they had a shovel in the trunk when their cars got bogged down in deep snow, and more than a few people would have loved to have had tire chains with them.

Experts recommend keeping a small supply of traction sand as well as emergency markers, extra clothing and blankets, fresh water and a little food – just in case.

But once the car starts to roll, there are a lot of tips that can make the difference in getting there safely.

“The two most critical factors are speed and distance,” Reagan said about driving on snow and ice.

Slow down and increase distances between your vehicle and anything else. That means put more room between you and other vehicles and start slowing down well in advance of any stops or corners.

Here is what sends emergency workers up the wall: Nearly every time it snows, especially the first big snowfall of the season, drivers barrel along as if nothing were different.

Speed sensors embedded in Interstate 90 proved that Wednesday. When the freeway started to ice up, the sensors showed that motorists were still averaging 50 to 60 mph in many stretches. Quite a few of them slowed down the hard way, when they crashed in the trouble spots of east Spokane, the Sunset Hill and the Northwest Boulevard area in Coeur d’Alene.

Dozens of accidents occurred, some in chain-like succession.

Reagan said speed limits are set for good road conditions during daylight hours. Anything less than optimum conditions should compel drivers to ease off the gas, especially on snow and ice.

Another must: Use a gentle touch on the accelerator, steering wheel and brake pedal. Slowing down will help you anticipate red lights and get the vehicle stopped more quickly.

If you begin to slide, let off the gas, do not brake, and turn the wheel gently into the direction of the slide. If the car fishtails, turn the wheel back in the other direction, continuing the corrective steering until the vehicle comes under control. Only then should you apply the brake or gas. Use a little less steering motion than the slide for best results.

The most efficient braking involves keeping the wheels turning. If the wheels lock and start to slide, back off the brake until the wheels start to turn again. Reagan said officers are taught a technique called “threshold braking” that involves applying the maximum pressure that does not lock the wheels.

While driving on plowed roads, you will find more traction in the strips of loose snow and sand typically left along the middle and sides of the roadway. Put the wheels on one side of the vehicle onto one of the strips to improve traction.

Steering is best done gently and slowly. A little bit of sliding is OK; a lot is bad. The key is to have the vehicle going where you want it, not where the sliding motion forces you.

The same goes for accelerating. To move away from a stop, let off the brake and let the idle carry the car a few feet before stepping on the gas gently. Add pressure as the vehicle gains a little momentum.

If you get stuck, a back-and-forth rocking motion will create a path matched to your wheels that allows you to gain momentum and break free.

As for visibility from inside the vehicle, the law requires at a minimum that a motorist be able to see out of a left and right mirror or a left and center (rearview) mirror, Reagan said.

While you are cleaning off snow and ice, make sure your head and taillights are clean. They work better that way.

Holiday patrol

Washington State Patrol troopers and other law officers will put additional effort into getting drunken drivers off the road during the holidays.

“It is well-known that during this time of year, holiday parties are held on Friday and Saturday evenings. This year there will be additional troopers working overtime shifts on those days in an effort to reduce the number of alcohol-related collisions,” the WSP said in a press release.

The 2007 holiday season saw 31 deaths caused by drunken drivers.

Mike Prager can be reached at (509) 459-5454 or by e-mail at

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