ScoutingJanuary-February 1999

Safe Driving in Hazardous Situations

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.

Illustration by Marvin Friedman

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 down.

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 returning.

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 consequences.

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 slick pavement.

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:

"Be Prepared."

"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 times."

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 winter weather.

Before you leave:

On the road:

Bill Sloan is a frequent contributor to Scouting magazine.

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