by Lawrence Herzog

It happened during a sudden whiteout near Lumsden, just northwest of Regina, Saskatchewan. Before he had time to apply the brakes, Murray Klatt’s van slammed into the back of a semi-trailer truck stopped in the travel lane. A retired police officer and long-time collision reconstructionist, Klatt’s instincts told him he wasn’t safe in his vehicle. He got out and headed for the shoulder of the road. A few seconds later, a vehicle plowed into the pile-up, snatching up the life of its sole occupant, a middle-aged male driver.

“It was a graphic display of just how quickly conditions can turn bad and how wrong I was thinking that it would never happen to me,” Klatt says. “Sometimes all it takes is a second or two. If I had stayed in my vehicle, I likely wouldn’t be around today. The other fellow wasn’t as fortunate.”

Every winter, dozens of such incidents happen on Canada’s roads. And every winter, police issue the same warnings: slow down, think about what’s ahead, give yourself more time and distance to stop and more time to accelerate, and stay off the roads during bad conditions unless absolutely necessary. Although heeding these warnings might not prevent all collisions, preparation and skill can help avoid most.

“The same way we get our cars ready for winter conditions, we also need to get ourselves ready,” explains Kwei Quaye, district manager of traffic safety for Saskatchewan Government Insurance (SGI). “Some of our worst days on the roads come during the first big storms, those transition times when people have forgotten how to drive on snow and ice.”

Quaye adds that problems are created by three categories of motorists: inexperienced or unaware drivers who don’t perceive changes in conditions and understand how to react; those who drive along as if nothing has changed; and those who believe they are obeying the law because, if the speed limit says 100 km/hr, that is what they will drive. “The posted speed limit is the maximum allowed under optimum driving conditions,” he says.

Conditions are often well below optimal during a Saskatchewan winter. That’s why driving too fast for conditions was a contributing factor in 636 crashes between November 2002 and March 2003, yet in only 290 crashes between April and October 2003, according to SGI claims data. Also in winter, more injuries occur during collisions in urban areas, particularly at intersections, and more vehicles go off the road in rural areas.

“There are several factors at play in many of the collisions,” says Patrick Kurtz, traffic safety coordinator for the Saskatchewan Safety Council. Traction, visibility (the driver’s ability to see the road clearly enough to react in time) and the manner in which a vehicle is operated all play a role. The biggest single way to avoid problems, Kurtz says, is to give yourself more time to accelerate, to slow down and to get the vehicle ready for travel. This includes sweeping off the snow and making sure the windows, taillights and headlights are clear. We’ve all seen those “peephole drivers,” scrunched down and peering around the steering wheel through the only clear spot on the windshield. As Quaye says, “Don’t put the vehicle in gear until the windshield is completely defrosted.”

On the road, control is key. You can avoid losing traction or skidding by accelerating slowly and braking steadily. Check available traction before you get to the first stop sign or traffic light. Keep your right heel on the floor and gently push the gas and brake pedals for more precise acceleration and braking inputs. Don’t lock the brakes by slamming them on. If you’ve got anti-lock brakes (ABS), remember that in icy conditions they require slightly more distance to stop. ABS doesn’t make you stop any quicker, just more safely, because locking up the wheels means a loss of steering control.

Gary Magwood, founder of the Toronto-based DrivAbility Car Control Clinics, says collision avoidance is directly related to how we apply the brakes and where we look. He suggests practicing threshold braking, keeping your heel on the floor while you alternately push the brake and gas pedals as noted above. With eyes high and looking beyond any hazard for an escape route, you can reduce a panic reaction and improve steering control. “If you find yourself sliding through a stop sign or towards an object, look up and look for a way out,” says Magwood. “The moment you unlock your eyes and look away, your feet and hands will follow. Remember: where you stare is where you steer.” He also recommends braking in a straight line and before steering because, “If you crank the steering wheel (swerving to avoid) and then brake, the wheels lock up much faster.” Swerving to avoid a hazard without any braking usually results in a more serious crash.

But don’t wait until the real thing to try it out. Murray Klatt suggests drivers find a safe place where they can practice. “Go into a nice big empty parking lot, lock your brakes, practice steering and learn what your vehicle does in slippery conditions. We all need to refresh our skills when the conditions change. It’s good preventive medicine.”

Driver Prep 101

  • If you must drive in bad weather, plan ahead and make sure you have enough fuel. Try to keep the fuel tank at least half full.

  • Be alert, well-rested and sober behind the wheel. Check mirrors and environment controls such as the heater and defogger before you start. Remember to turn on your lights, because daytime running lights do not include tail lights on most vehicles.
  • If visibility becomes poor, find a place to safely pull off the road as soon as possible. It’s best to stop at a rest area or exit the roadway and go to a protected area. If the roadside is your only option, pull off the road as far as you can. In reduced visibility, make sure your emergency flashers are on to alert other drivers.
  • Check weather and travel conditions before heading out. Give yourself extra time for travel and, if weather is bad, wait for conditions to improve. Plan your route and let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to arrive, especially when driving long distances. If the going gets tough, turn back or seek refuge. Try to keep to the main roads and drive with caution, adjusting your speed to road and weather conditions.
  • Wear warm clothes that do not restrict movement, and be sure to bring water and non-perishable food supplies. It’s also a good idea to take a cell phone.

Sources: Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), Office of Critical Infrastructure Protection and Emergency Preparedness, Transport Canada, DrivAbility Car Control Clinics

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A version of this article originally appeared in Westworld Saskatchewan, CAA Saskatchewan’s magazine to its members.

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