By Bill Sloan
Illustration by Marvin Friedman
Foggy mist, freezing rain, wet snow, a torrential downpour,
and other dangerous conditions can occur suddenly, and each circumstance requires
special precautions and specific driving techniques from motorists.
The shoulder of the Inter-state is white with snow, but the pavement itself is
clear as you and your Scouts head for a weekend of skiing and cold-weather camping.
Sunset is still a half-hour away, traffic is light, and your speed is well within
the posted limit. Everything seems secure.
But as you cross a short bridge, you feel the van fishtail slightly, and that safe
feeling is gone in a flash as it suddenly dawns on you: Evening's coming on, and the
temperature's starting to fall. The bridges are already freezing over. Better slow
Even as the thought forms in your mind, a disturbing realization follows close on
its heels. If the abrupt change in road conditions had gone unnoticed for just a
few moments longer - until you came to the long river bridge a mile or so ahead,
for example - it could have meant serious trouble, even disaster.
You lift your foot from the accelerator, tighten your grip on the steering wheel,
switch on your headlights, and take a quick survey of all the other vehicles within
sight. Only then do you breathe a sigh of relief and feel a sense of security
Unexpected changes in weather and road conditions can happen without warning anytime,
but their probability increases sharply at this time of year. Winter weather also
puts a greater demand on key vehicle components such as tires, windshield wipers,
batteries, brakes, and cooling systems. Rain, snow, sleet, fog, ice, and wind are
the enemies of every driver. And when they occur, a brief lapse in attention, an
overlooked mechanical problem, or a few seconds' carelessness can have tragic
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly one million
vehicle accidents occur in wet weather each year, and many of these wrecks are caused
by motorists who simply fail to realize the difference between driving on dry and
Safe-driving experts with the National Safety Council, Tire Industry Safety Council,
American Automobile Association, leading auto insurers, and the BSA's own Insurance
& Risk Management Service say the best rule for safe driving under adverse
conditions can be summed up in the two words of the Scout motto:
"We see a lot of different kinds of weather in an average year," says Bob Ricklefs,
ranch and farm superintendent of the huge Philmont Scout Ranch in northern New Mexico
- probably the No. 1 travel destination for American Scouts and Scouters. "We try to
stress to our drivers that weather conditions can change quickly around here and so
can road conditions and surfaces, so it's important to stay on your toes at all
In many remote areas, Ricklefs points out, pavement can end without warning and
drivers can find themselves on rough, treacherous dirt roads that raise dust
clouds in dry weather and turn to slippery muck when it rains.
Taking extra precautions has paid off at Philmont, Ricklefs emphasizes. "Our fleet of
65 vehicles transports thousands of people each year, often on some very bad roads,"
he says, "but our only accident last year was a minor fender-bender caused by - you
guessed it - a slick surface."
Safety experts offer the following tips for having a safe trip in foul, unpredictable
Before you leave:
- Give your vehicle a thorough "physical exam." Replace worn tires, brakes,
and wiper blades. Have the battery checked for signs of weakness which can
leave it dead (and you stranded) at the onset of cold weather. Make sure
the radiator has plenty of antifreeze and examine all under-the-hood hoses
and belts. Make sure your defroster and windshield washers are working
properly. Change oil, oil filter, and fuel filter(s) if necessary.
- Clear the windshield, windows, outside mirrors, and all lights of ice,
snow, mud, or fog. Don't leave snow on the hood or roof of the vehicle,
from which it can blow back onto the windshield as you drive. Allow the
engine to warm up to normal operating temperature so that the heater and
defroster are working efficiently when you hit the road.
- Carry a scraper, spray deicer, brush, rags, and extra windshield washer
antifreeze to keep windows clear. A bag of cat box litter or other
abrasive material can help get you started on snowy or icy surfaces, and
snow chains are a major asset in extreme blizzard conditions. Install chains
sooner, rather than later, to avoid being exposed to the worst of the weather.
- Even with maximum precautions, emergencies still happen, so also prepare
yourself and your passengers for possible exposure to the elements.
This means warm clothing - including hat, gloves, all-weather coat,
and boots - as well as a good flashlight with new batteries, a
first-aid kit, and some nonperishable food. Taking along a CB radio
or mobile phone is highly recommended.
- Check the radio for travel advisories and storm warnings. If conditions
change or forecasts predict severe weather before you leave for a unit
activity, don't be afraid to delay, cancel, or reschedule the activity.
It's better to postpone your trip than to take unreasonable risks.
On the road:
- Slow down. Driving too fast for conditions is the chief cause of bad-weather
accidents. On ice or snow, cut your normal speed by half.
- Maintain a smooth, steady pace, avoiding jerky or abrupt movements. Allow
plenty of space between your vehicle and the one ahead.
- Keep your headlights on - always on low beam - in all adverse weather
conditions to help other drivers see you. But avoid using parking lights
alone. They can mislead other drivers by making your vehicle seem farther
away than it is.
- Keep windows clear of frost and condensation. If necessary, stop periodically
to clean windows thoroughly.
- Activate your directional signals far in advance when visibility is poor or
roads are slick.
- Stay in touch with road conditions by touching your brake pedal occasionally.
If the surface is slippery, start braking earlier and allow more time and
distance for full stops. In the case of skids, counter-steer, aiming in the
direction you want the vehicle to go. Remember that bridges and underpasses
can be icy even when the rest of the roadway is not.
- Know the limitations of your vehicle. If you feel that weather and road
conditions are more than it can handle, stop and wait for them to improve.
Bill Sloan is a frequent contributor to Scouting magazine.
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