Winter weather requires motorists to be careful, prepared

By Abby Morris
Star Staff

Many motorists spending time on the road during the winter months will face the dangers posed by inclement weather. The key to successfully avoiding such problems is being prepared, according to safety officials.
   "The more prepared you are going into winter driving, then the fewer problems you are likely to have," said Beth Womack, public information officer for the Tennessee Department of Safety.
   Because of snow and ice on the road during the winter, many drivers are involved in traffic accidents, and some are left stranded.
   According to Mike Merritt, an Elizabethton Police Department Ptl. officer who works with a traffic unit set aside to deal solely with vehicular safety, drivers just need to use common sense to avoid accidents during bad weather.
   "Folks just need to slow down," he said, noting that some drivers forget to adjust their speed for road conditions.
   Another problem that leads to traffic accidents during inclement weather is drivers who do not allow enough space between their vehicle and the vehicle in front of them.
   "They're so close to the vehicle in front of them they've lost all their reaction time," Merritt said. Merritt recommends a three-second follow time during normal driving conditions. He suggests adding an extra second or two to that follow time when the road is slick or there is poor visibility.
   To test the following distance, observe when the vehicle in front of you passes some kind of marker and then count to see how long it takes you to pass the same marker.
   Womack agreed that following too closely can be a problem during winter months. "If the car in front of you loses control, then you want plenty of room to maintain control of your own vehicle," she said.
   Margaret Mahler, a safety officer for the Tennessee Department of Transportation, said that, in addition to keeping a safe distance from other vehicles on the road, drivers should also keep a safe distance from vehicles attempting to clear the highways.
   "Do not get close to a snow plow or salt truck," she said, pointing out that debris can fly up from the truck, causing damage. "Remember, they are trying to help."
   Another safety suggestion Mahler had was to avoid unnecessary travel. "If it's bad, don't get out. Blockbuster is not worth it," Mahler said, citing that in most cases, people get out for things that are not really necessary or that can wait a day or two. "In a day or two, the snow and ice will have melted or the Department of Transportation will have the roads cleared and it will be safe to get out to the store."
   Drivers should also avoid distractions inside the vehicle such as talking on cell phones, operating the radio or talking to other passengers, Merritt said. "Those things always seem to play their part, especially when reaction time is so important," he said.
   Merritt and Womack both suggested that drivers should have their vehicles winterized and should make sure that the tires have good tread and are properly pressurized. "And make sure to keep the windows and headlight casings clean and clear of salt," Merritt added.
   Even if motorists follow all of these safety recommendations, some may find themselves on the side of the road, waiting for help to arrive. In addition to safety suggestions, officials also recommend that motorists keep some simple supplies in their vehicles in case they find themselves stranded.
   "Be prepared for cold temperatures, especially if you are traveling at night," Merritt said.
   In addition to the traditional items a person should carry in their car such as a warm blanket, gloves and an extra coat, Womack suggests something a little more out of the ordinary to add warmth to the car. "It's amazing how much warmth a candle in a tin can can create," she said, adding that the can creates a safe place to put the candle and also magnifies the light and heat.
   Mahler suggested making sure the vehicle you are in has plenty of gas in case you have to turn the car's heater on for warmth. "Top off your tank of gas when it gets to a quarter of a tank," she said.
   There are some risks associated with running the car to let it stay warm though. If the exhaust system leaks, people run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning if they run the car to keep the heater going, Merritt said.
   "A good exhaust system will move the exhaust away from the car," he said. "People just have to be aware of the condition of their own vehicle."
   Items such as drinking water, non-perishable snacks and flashlights are good ideas to keep in the car as well. "People may want to purchase a small roadside emergency kit available at stores," Merritt said.
   Cellular phones are also a good item to keep with you when traveling during the winter according to officials.
   "Dial *THP if you are having trouble, are in a wreck or get stranded. That number will connect you to the local THP dispatcher," Womack said. "If you have trouble, that's a good number to remember."
   Merritt agreed that cell phones were useful, and he advised those who carry them to make sure the battery has a full charge before leaving the house. "Sometimes people use it to make a few phone calls and that runs the battery down and they forget to recharge it," he said.
   For those who have simply veered off the roadway and are unable to gain the traction necessary to get back on the road, sand, gravel or even kitty litter may come in handy. According to Merritt, if a person places such items underneath the tires, it will help them gain traction and may be able to get them back on their way.
   Mahler advises that safety doesn't stop once a person becomes stranded.
   "Make sure everyone keeps their seatbelt on," she said. "If someone else comes along and slips and hits the vehicle, you will be unprotected if you are not wearing your seatbelt."
   If you have to get out of the car, Mahler said, get on the other side of the guardrail and stay away from the car so that you will not be injured in case another vehicle slides off the road in that area.
   She also suggested carrying a reflective vest, like the ones used by those who ride bicycles at night, so that motorists can see you if it's necessary to get out of your car. Also, the vest can be rolled up in the window and hung outside the car, warning other drivers that a vehicle is on the side of the road.