January 4, 2009 in News, Region, Travel

Drivers learn hard winter lessons

By The Spokesman-Review
 
On the Web Find weather and travel information at: •Spokane office of the National Weather Service: www.wrh.noaa.gov/otx/ •Washington Department of Transportation: wsdot.wa.gov •Idaho Transportation Department: itd.idaho.gov •Spokane Regional Traffic Management Center: www.srtmc.org

Nearly 20 motorists learned last week why it’s important to be prepared for winter driving conditions.

Rural roads were closed when winds blew heavy snow across them at nightfall Dec. 29.

Northwest Spokane County roads became impassable, and many motorists simply abandoned their vehicles, officials said. The sheriff called out the Spokane Winter Knights Snowmobile Club to conduct an emergency search and rescue.

“The conditions out there were absolutely horrendous,” Bob Walker, a retired Spokane police officer and a director of the Winter Knights volunteer search and rescue squad, said of the drifts that were 4 to 5 feet deep in some places.

Three teams of three snowmobiles each were dispatched to comb 38 square miles of remote terrain in the area of Charles and Woods roads northwest of Airway Heights. They found 19 trapped vehicles – some of which were left in the middle of the roadway – and three motorists, two of whom were walking to find shelter after leaving their vehicles.

One vehicle nearly went over an embankment and was trapped on its left side in a snowbank.

Walker said the motorists apparently were unaware of the potential trouble when they set out on their journeys.

People often forget about the danger of winter weather in wind-swept locations across the Columbia Basin, Palouse, Rathdrum Prairie and rural Spokane County. Motorists need to be prepared, Walker said.

“First of all, listen to the radio and pay attention to the weather,” he said. And when bad weather hits, “unless it’s an absolute emergency, stay home.”

The Spokane County Department of Emergency Management last week warned that drivers can be “stranded miles from help, and may find that emergency service agencies are either unaware of their predicament or are themselves unable to respond.”

Public information officer Lisa Jameson said that when a vehicle becomes stranded in snow, occupants may be at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning because exhaust can build up beneath the vehicle and migrate into the passenger compartment.

Windows should be kept cracked open, and the engine should be started only to warm up the inside of the vehicle from time to time.

Attempting to walk out can expose people to the risk of hypothermia, Jameson said.

Having updated weather and road conditions is essential, and public agencies have improved their communication systems to help drivers know about winter hazards.

Check these Web sites: the Spokane office of the National Weather Service at www.wrh.noaa.gov/otx/; the Washington Department of Transportation at wsdot.wa.gov; the Idaho Transportation Department at itd.idaho.gov; and the Spokane Regional Traffic Management Center at www.srtmc.org.

Both Washington and Idaho have road condition reports available by phone at 511.

The AAA recommends that motorists make sure their vehicles are in good working condition with proper tire inflation, a battery with enough life to withstand cold and a gasoline tank that’s at least half-full. Let other people know of your travel plans.

For many vehicles, it’s a good idea to carry tire chains for deep snow and keep the windshield wiper fluid reservoir filled with anti-freeze cleaner. Also, a winter car kit should include a shovel, a small amount of traction sand, dry gloves, extra clothing or blanket, emergency food, water and flashlight. Drivers should consider the possibility that their engine could be disabled in an accident, eliminating it as a source of heat and light. Carrying a fully charged cell phone is smart, too.

Mike Prager can be reached at (509) 459-5454 or by e-mail at mikep@spokesman.com.


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