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Evening the Odds

by GD Swain
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Want to seriously improve your chances of making it through winter unscathed? The best advice available can be imparted in two words - slow down. Pure common sense, really, but not so commonly applied. After the first flakes begin falling, it seems to take about a month of playing bumper cars before motorists begin adjusting their attitude - and their speed. In the meantime, you're a sitting duck. There's nothing funny about having an impeccable abstract tainted by someone else's bad judgment.

On the other hand, relying on someone else's reflexes to stay safe isn't a sound approach to winter driving either. The best strategy is to buy all the time you can: look ahead as far as you can see, get the big picture, and leave enough space (and time) to think about what you need to do in an emergency. In other words, ease up on the throttle.

Excessive speed really is the greatest hazard of winter, says Kirt McDougall, one of Saskatoon-based Kindersley Transport's elite team of eight driver trainers, "You can drive too slowly down any stretch of road for your entire career, but you'll do it too fast only once," he says.

At Bison Transport, truck-driving simulators are an integral part of driver development activities, and these days the simulator is being used to put drivers into compromising situations with less than seven seconds to react. "Sometimes even the best drivers can over-estimate their abilities," says Garth Pitzel, director of safety and driver services for Winnipeg's Bison Transport, "Especially in adverse conditions."

The simulator is a polite way of pointing that fact out.
Each year, Pitzel sets specific safety targets for drivers through tailored programs, and this year the message at Bison is the "seven second rule". It's a campaign highlighting the dangers of following too close.

Seven seconds may seem like an eternity in some situations, and the snap of a finger in others. Low-beam headlights illuminate about 250 ft of road, which is roughly the distance it takes to stop an average five-axle tractor/trailer going 90 km/h on bare, dry pavement - if you're on your game. Pitzel says most of the drivers who try the scenarios in Bison's simulator emerge amazed at how quickly seven seconds disappears when all hell is breaking loose around them.

If it takes a second or so to realize that moose is not a fatigue-induced illusion, then all bets are off. Most of the animals you might encounter on the highway are nocturnal, and like you, they prefer to stay out of the deep snow in the ditch. Some gravitate to the road to eat the salt left behind by the plow. If you see one, chances are, there are more. Add weird weather into the mix, or typical urban roadway tomfoolery, and seven seconds suddenly becomes a pretty stingy safety margin.

Natural Causes
The hazards of winter driving can be minimized if drivers are aware of what's going on outside the cab. Cold has a predictable effect on moisture, and ice has a predictable effect on trucks. But it's all manageable if the driver remains aware.

Black ice is formed when moisture on the pavement freezes in a layer so thin it's invisible. Moisture can result from rain or snow, but also dew, fog, frost, or melting runoff from snow banks, inclined driveways and side roads. Bridges always freeze first because there's no ground beneath the pavement to help retain heat. A sudden drop in temperature can occur at sunset, at a change in altitude (temperatures will drop about two degrees Celsius for every 1000 ft of altitude), or a change in latitude if you're coming north from the south, or on a heavily trafficked highway where the hot tires of the vehicles ahead melt blowing snow that refreezes in the seven seconds it takes you to get to it.

If the road is wet, keep your eye on the spray from oncoming traffic, or use your own backup lights to see if your tires are still kicking up spray or slush. If you notice that the spray has disappeared, beware, because that means the road is now a sheet of ice. "It is the driver's responsibility to adapt to every road condition," says McDougall, "That's what we get paid to do."

Freezing rain is the most demanding and dangerous condition to drive in. If the water on your windshield begins to form clumps on your wipers, or you can feel with your fingers a build-up on the front of your mirror, it might be a good idea to pull over for dinner or a nap, or both.

The best strategy for ice-covered pavement is to avoid it, but if you do hit a patch, don't panic. You could drive straight ahead on glare ice all day long. It's when you try to make some kind of change to the speed or direction of the truck that things go bad.

Emergency Preparedness
According to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), highway traffic incidents account for the most fatalities during winter storms, but not just from collisions. Many perish from exposure and hypothermia. Both McDougall and Rahim recommend the following items be a mandatory personal "survival kit" kept in the cab of every truck come winter.

- Extra water and some food that will stay fresh for a couple of days
- Waterproof winter clothing and extra heavy blankets
- Insulated work gloves
- Insulated rubber work gloves for wet weather
- Flashlight and batteries
- Basic tool kit (hammer, adjustable wrench, multi-tip screwdriver, etc.)
- Candles
- Reading material
- Booster cables

"And make sure the driver knows how to use them properly," adds Rahim. McDougall stresses the importance of keeping your basic First Aid training up to date. "Those extra blankets aren't just for you," he points out. "I have yet to meet a veteran driver who hasn't been first on the scene of an accident at least once in their career."

Try to avoid braking or hard acceleration. As long as the wheels are turning freely on the slippery surface, they won't break traction. Turning can have a similar effect. When possible, roll across the ice without making any control input changes, but if you must, do it gently.

If you do break traction and begin to slide on the ice, Gus Rahim, general manager of the recently christened Canadian Centre for Decision Driving (CCDD) in Grand Bend, Ontario says your best bet is to pick the spot you want the truck to go, never take your eyes off it, and steer toward it without braking or accelerating.

"Look where you want to go and drive through it with your foot off the throttle," he says. "If there is an obstacle like a car in your path, do not become fixated on the object you're trying to avoid. Any brake application is the worst thing you can do in slippery conditions."

CCDD is the first facility of its kind in the province, offering skid pad training for professional drivers. "The best way to teach skid recovery," Rahim chuckles, "is to learn skid avoidance. We teach that too, but a driver has to know what it feels like to lose control before they can learn how to find it again."

Man-made Hazards
Some folks figure the safest place to be in a snow storm is behind a plow, but that's only because you're going slower than you want to, which is why you caught up to it in the first place. The plow blade actually removes most of the traction from the road surface so salt from its spreader can work on the ice below. Salt melts from the top down, which means there's a thin layer of water on the surface of the shiny snow left in the wake of a plow. And if it's cold enough, say 20 below - like when you can see the plume of diesel exhaust stretching past the end of your trailer - even salted surfaces can refreeze almost instantly. Use caution when changing lanes or passing behind a plow - the windrows can be deadly.

Diesel engines are designed to provide maximum torque at the low end of the operating range, somewhere around 1100-1300 rpm. If your drive wheels keep sliding out to the side when you're getting started, try starting in a higher gear. If you find yourself skipping up a hill or fishtailing when you're hard on the throttle at low rpm try running in a lower gear at a higher rpm. Downshift a gear and keep the rpm well above your peak torque range, say around 1800-2000 rpm. You might also want to make decelerating downshifts at a lower rpm than usual in order to keep the drives from locking up when you release the clutch - and use your engine brake with discretion. If you're relying on your ABS to keep you in a straight line, just remember that while you'll stop in a straight line, it'll take longer to do so.

If you try to cut a line on the inside of a corner or exit ramp, centrifugal force can push you out onto the ruts of compressed ice where there is no traction. Try to keep your tires on the snowline at the outside of the ruts in corners. Same thing can be said for going up and down hills: stay out of the ruts and keep your rubber on the snow.

Man-made Solutions
Despite nature's best efforts, we've managed to thwart at least some of the hazards, like frozen fluids. Frank Brun, Shop Supervisor for Ryder Logistics and Transportation in Weston, Ont. says it's vital to drain your air tanks daily in cold weather, even if the truck is equipped with an air dryer and an alcohol evaporator. And forget about using alcohol as a fix-it for frozen air lines. "Methyl hydrate in the air system will dry out the seals and wreck the desiccant in the dryer," warns Brun. He doesn't recommend using it as a fuel conditioner either, it'll wreck your injectors.

Never allow your fuel tanks to get below one-quarter full. Also, be mindful of the difference between winter and summer fuel if, for example, you need to fill up in Vancouver before heading back to Calgary. The summer blends available in warmer climates may not be up to the challenge of a really cold winter day.
A couple of final things. Your pre-trip inspection is a good time to top up the windshield washer and clean your glass, lights, and license plates.

Remember that the new LED lights generate no heat as do incandescent lights. They won't melt away the caked snow picked up in a storm so you'll be invisible from behind. If you have room to play with your weight distribution, you might want to slide your 5th-wheel forward and/or trailer bogies back to put as much weight on your steer and drive axles as legally allowed. Make sure your 5th-wheel is clear of ice and snow before you pin to a trailer.

Don't pull off onto just any freshly plowed shoulders. What looks like an inviting spot to stop might be an optical illusion created by the wing blade of a road grader. Only pull off the pavement in places where you know the ground is solid enough under the snow to support your weight.

A friend once cautioned me never to drive faster than my guardian angel could fly, so keep in mind that your guardian angel has to fly through the same weather you drive in. No load is worth your life, or anyone else's. And here's a final bit of advice: do lots of sit-ups before winter sets in - that way, if you have to duck and kiss your butt goodbye, you'll be in good enough shape to do it.