Thursday, October 16, 2014

Driving in Inclement Weather Takes a Different Approach

Now that Western Washington is entering the rainy – and occasionally snowy – season, driving a car is much more difficult. Driving down dry pavement in summer, with lots of light during the day and dry conditions that make it easier to see at night, makes for a less stressful situation. This changes drastically when the days are dark and cloudy, the rain pelts against your windshield, and the pavement is slick.

And, contrary to popular opinion, it doesn’t much matter if you’re driving a four-wheel drive vehicle or not when the weather turns nasty. The amount of tire rubber that actually touches the road is miniscule (less than 10 percent). It's what is called the "tire-road interaction", and the interaction actually decreases at higher speeds. So having four of them activated is only marginally better than having two.

Car Care

All the skill in the world will not help much if your car and its equipment aren’t functioning properly. It’s important to have all your car’s functions checked by a certified mechanic before you get stuck, but there are some simple things you can do to prevent a breakdown or a collision due to faulty equipment.

Check your tires for wear. During the dry season, you may have had no problems driving and stopping with worn-out tires, but the minute the rains make the roads slick, you will find cornering and stopping is much more treacherous. You can easily check tread depth by inserting a quarter into a tire's deepest grooves, head pointing down. If you can see the top of George Washington's head, you have 1/8 of tread or less, and it's time to start shopping for new rubber.

Tire hydroplaning: left at 20 mph, center at 40 mph and right at 60 mph.
You probably won’t notice the worn tires until you need to brake suddenly and your car goes into a skid on wet pavement. If the tread is too worn, the water on the pavement is not channeled away by the tire, and your tires slide on a thin sheet of water that gets between your tire and the pavement. This is called “hydroplaning”, and will usually result in loss of control. Your stopping distance will increase, which can mean slamming into the car in front of you or running off the road. Either way, you’re in trouble!

Check your windshield wipers. Your wipers, which have probably been tucked safely away below the windshield most of the summer, are now suddenly called into action trying to keep your windshield from streaking with rain. After a summer of the sun beating down on the rubber blades, they may have become cracked or brittle. Check them now, before you get hit by a rainstorm while driving down a crowded freeway and find out they can’t keep the windshield clear anymore!

Driving Skills

Increase your spacing. When driving in bad weather, always give yourself more room to maneuver than you normally would. Your ability to stop on a rain-slicked roadway is greatly diminished. Leave more room to the car in front of you, and always give yourself an “out”. If something suddenly happens in front of you, where will you go? If you are near the road’s shoulder, you can turn off the road and onto the shoulder. If you’re in the fast lane, there might be a little bit of room between the lane and the barrier separating the oncoming lanes. Always be prepared for the worst, and you’ll give yourself a better chance of avoiding disaster.

Slow down. Not only is braking adversely affected by rain or snow on the road, but the ability to maneuver is diminished. Changing lanes, speeding up quickly and making turns are all more treacherous. Doing everything more deliberately and slowly is the best answer. Any quick maneuvers can cause your vehicle to go into a slide and you can easily lose control. Once the vehicle has lost its grip on the road, it is difficult for it to reestablish any control until the vehicle comes to a stop.  If your vehicle does begin to slip, pump your brakes -- don't slam on the brakes -- and turn your wheels into the skid. This can bring the vehicle’s front end back into alignment with the back and end the slide.

Stay focused at all times. With all the distractions that drivers have, it’s more important than ever to keep your eyes constantly on the road. Turn off your phone, don’t fumble with that cup of coffee that spilled, don’t try to change that CD that just ended! Every instant you take your eyes off the road is an instant that could cause a serious accident!

By being alert and focused while driving this winter, you’ll be safer and so will the drivers around you.