We sat down with Chris Engelbrecht, emergency management liaison for MoDOT, and Mark Woodward, senior safety trainer at MEM, to learn about driving in extreme winter weather and how business owners can reduce their employees’ risk.
Let’s start by covering the basics. What are the “commandments” of safe winter driving that everyone should know?
Engelbrecht: Of course, wearing seat belts and putting cell phones down work in any season. For winter driving, just staying alert – not only paying attention to the vehicle in front of you, but also looking well ahead of that vehicle. Try to see as far down the road as you can to try to anticipate what the vehicle’s going to do. Slow down. Increase your following distance. We really like folks to stay about 200 feet behind the vehicle in front of them; possibly more, depending on the weather and road conditions.
Woodward: Speed management’s a big thing. Planning your trips, preparing your vehicle. Chris, what would you recommend for driving safely around snow plows? A snow plow is driving slowly, spreading salt – maybe I want to go around it. What are the rules?
Engelbrecht: We recommend that folks stay behind the plows and not pass them. Typically, when there’s snow on the ground, those plows travel at a speed that’s safe for the conditions. They’re traveling about 35 miles per hour, which is probably the speed that all drivers should drive in those conditions. I’ve heard people say, when they crash, “I didn’t have any issues driving 60 mph, until I tried to stop.” It’s not a problem until you try to turn or stop – that really is the issue on snow and ice.
No, it’s not illegal to pass a snow plow, but it’s not advised because conditions are better behind the plow. We’re scraping the excess slush off the road, and typically applying some type of salt or abrasive to give you better traction. If you do decide to pass a plow that’s spreading material, it could damage your vehicle’s windshield and we don’t want that. You’re better off staying several hundred feet behind the vehicle.
Woodward: And it’s stressful driving a plow truck! You’ve been out there for several hours, it’s cold, visibility is bad, and you’re running the plow, the spreader box, and the truck safely. If you have vehicles speeding past you it’s stressful. A big part of it is trip planning: on days with bad weather, you know you can’t leave the house at the same time and get to work, so you need to leave early. Prepare your vehicle, and slow down. Understand that you’re not going to be able to go fast, and make it easier on the plow operator – it’s already stressful enough.
Speaking of preparing your vehicle, what should people do to prepare their cars for winter driving?
Woodward: I’d look over your vehicle now, before weather hits. Check your tires, fluids (antifreeze, coolant, oil levels, transmission fluid), power steering, hoses, tires (inflation, tread depth), lights, windshield wipers. There are a lot of things to check. And I tell folks, if you’re not sure about checking those things yourself, get a family member or friend to come over and check out your car for you. You can also take it to a shop, and a lot of mechanics are just glad you brought it in and asked them for help, and sometimes they don’t even charge you for it. You can even send it in for a motor vehicle inspection, which is unusual because you’re not getting licensed, but it’s around $13 and they’ll tell you everything you need to fix on the car.
From a fleet standpoint, I’d be concerned about the vehicles that don’t get driven all the time. Those back lot trucks that may have flat tires or lights that don’t work, maybe the defroster doesn’t come on or the wipers halfway work. That maintenance needs to happen ahead of time, and I wouldn’t put an employee in a truck that hasn’t been really scrutinized for reliability and safety.
Engelbrecht: When things get really bad, there are times it’s difficult for responders to get out to check on folks, even with the equipment they have. So you need to be prepared to be on your own for up to a couple of hours before a responder can get to you, if it’s a severe ice or snow storm. Have extra blankets, always have a full tank of gas. If you’re in a safe area to run your vehicle with the heater on, that’s great – but that goes back to keeping your car in safe condition, because if you’re in a snow bank with an exhaust leak, there’s the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning inside the vehicle.
Water, snacks, a flashlight, and a portable cell phone charger are other things you might want to have.
Woodward: And proper clothing to begin with. I’ve seen people stuck in collisions in frigid temperatures and they are not prepared – they have no coat, no gloves, no hat, and they’re stuck out there for 20 or 30 minutes waiting for a tow truck or an ambulance. They’re super cold! I’ve seen people in flip flops, sandals, sweat pants, and those are not appropriate for winter driving. So, just dress correctly.
What else do people need to know if they do get into an accident?
Engelbrecht: One thing we run into is people who slide partially off the road but are still blocking it. If you can move your vehicle from the roadway, you need to do that. There’s a state statute that requires you, if you’re in a non-injury crash, to remove your vehicle from the roadway to a safe location. If you can’t do that, you have a decision to make: most of the time we recommend that you stay in your vehicle because it offers you some protection in case there’s a secondary crash, which is usually worse. But if it’s not a safe location, you should probably exit the vehicle and get up onto a hillside where you won’t get struck by a passing vehicle.
Woodward: These slide-off incidents along multilane highways… it’s tough to see. People crash their vehicles, stranding themselves and causing backups for no reason. We’re just going too fast, we’re distracted, we’re not scanning ahead or paying attention. One thing changes, and suddenly I’m out of control and I hit the median. The downstream result of that is that other people call 911 to report the crash and ambulances, fire trucks, police and tow trucks are all mobilized. Traffic shuts down because I was going a little too fast and wasn’t paying attention. I’m in the median, I’m not hurt but my car is totaled, I’ve torn up 300 feet of median cable and I’ve stopped traffic in both lanes.
So, we have to think about and prevent these slide-off and rear-end type incidents. We’re just going too fast. And Chris, what you mentioned about the secondary crash is even scarier. Imagine: traffic is slowing because I wasn’t paying attention and ran off the road. My vehicle is sitting in the median, everybody’s stopping and traffic is backed up a quarter mile. Back up the road, someone could be seriously injured in a full-speed collision.
We can all work to avoid this by scanning ahead and increasing your following distance to give yourself room to stop when traffic conditions change quickly. The minor crashes do really become majors ones in bad weather.
We all know that the only way to completely avoid an accident altogether is to just stay off the roads. MoDOT encourages business owners to help keep their employees safe by closing their offices, either closing early if weather’s on the way, or just closing all day. What would you say to business owners who are reluctant to close for a day because of lost productivity?
Engelbrecht: Well, for businesses that are mainly office, it can be easier for them to call off work or have people work from home. With technology, it’s fairly easy to do a lot of the computer-based work remotely. For other businesses, it’s a tough call. If they have deliveries coming in and assembly lines to run, it’s difficult to close that down in the middle of the day. But that’s where pre-planning and being aware of the weather ahead of time come in. You can flex shifts to start and end earlier, depending on when the weather’s going to hit.
With industries like gas stations that have fuel deliveries, grocery deliveries – those are the ones that typically have to stay open. But those single-axle tractor trailers with double trailers are where we see a lot of issues. Once those trucks slow down and break traction, they can’t take off again. That stops traffic because it takes a long time for us to get those cleared. We have to bring in a wrecker, and if they’re stop long enough, the brakes freeze up and then we have to tow each trailer individually.
You mentioned being aware of weather that’s heading your way. What apps or websites does MoDOT have that people can use to stay on top of incoming weather and traffic conditions?
Engelbrecht: We recommend the MoDOT traveler information map. You can access it on a browser or with the app. It will give you the most current information on traffic and pavement conditions for winter driving. It shows the status of each lane, whether it’s covered, partially clear or mostly clear. You can also view the traffic cameras in real time to see traffic speed and congestion levels. I’d also recommend following MoDOT on Twitter and Facebook. We send out information about developing road conditions, how you can avoid the area, and the expected time duration of events.
Chris, you’ve been with MoDOT for more than twenty years. What’s your craziest winter driving story?
Engelbrecht: I’ve always said, just when you think you’ve seen it all, somebody tries something new and impresses you – or depresses you, I’m not sure which. Several years back, we had the last large snow here in central Missouri (16-18 inches), and we actually, for one of the first times ever, closed the interstate. We put barricades at the ramps to keep people from going down. It was so bad, we had difficulty getting our own plows out. One of the last vehicles to come through after we’d closed the road – somehow they’d gotten through – was a Toyota Corolla with very bad tires that came through the middle of Columbia and got stuck. When we approached him and asked him what was going on, his response was, “My wife said I had to get home.”
Woodward: I think I remember that snow, and you guys closing the road, because I was a volunteer firefighter at the time and I remember we basically couldn’t get the firetrucks out onto I-70. We got lots of 911 calls from people who were stranded, and we ended up just having to use some of the volunteers’ big 4×4 pick-ups. That’s pretty bad shape when you can’t use fire trucks or get ambulances to people. It goes back to your comment about paying attention. Please don’t travel when severe weather conditions are coming. You know, those people who stayed on the road for 16-18 inches of snow – I’m just glad we were able to get to them with the 4x4s! What if it had gotten to the point where we had to walk to someone with injuries? That was a nasty snowfall.
Engelbrecht: And fortunately with 16-inch snows, people can’t drive that fast, because it’s just so deep. But I think there’s a misconception that if it’s a very light snow, you can still travel close to the posted speed limit. Again, it’s not an issue with driving that fast, it’s trying to stop or turn. You have to drive accordingly with the conditions, and if there’s any amount of visible snow on the road, you cannot be anywhere close to the posted speed limit.
Over the 20 years, we’ve seen a lot of near-misses with first responders. I’ve been working on multiple crashes where someone slides right between the responders and barely misses them. It gets the adrenaline going and gets the nerves a little frazzled, but you carry on, and move onto the next one.