Kevin McIntyre wrote of the picture at the top of
this page and the one at the bottom (taken by his wife Sandra)
"On highway 55 midway
from Nipawin to Carrot 4:30PM Saturday. A smart person would stay home you know..."
When it comes to winter driving
or even spring and fall
situations which can be every bit as dangerous, common sense and even experience,
are not all that helpful in making that "go, no go" decision. Kevin
who is confined to a wheel chair assessed his situation half way from home to his
destination, that he had exceeded what he considers his safe limits and that comes
down to a thing called "risk assessment."
Making the decision to travel or not is actually far less complicated that many people
turn this problem into, so let's first decide what factors must be ignored, for a
driver to make a sensible and reasonable decision.
The primary factor in risk assessment is weighing the ultimate question; is the
trip a life and death situation?
If your trip is not a matter of life and death you should not consider making
a questionable journey in serious weather because your decision is one of life and
The second factor is the vehicle you will be using. Many vehicles are not really
suited to venture beyond the town limits as they have tires without treads, poor
heating system, bad exhaust or questionable reliability. Consider if the vehicle
you will be using is up to the rigours of serious weather.
The third factor is the driver. Is the driver emotionally calm and able to remain
calm in tense poor visibility conditions? Has the driver experience in bad weather
and is able to assess their limitations and that of the vehicle? Perhaps when you
assess driver preparedness, the driver who is under stress, or becomes easily anxious,
in poor driving conditions is much more threatened and in danger then Kevin in his
huge van and in his wheel chair.
Many people place great stock in having a view of
what to expect and pour over weather reports, check the highway hotline and gaze
into crystal balls. Highway reports and weather reports are just as dangerous as
ignoring the weather entirely. The primary factors already listed come first because
even moderately bad weather is way more than many drivers are emotionally up to and
some vehicles are far more limited by even mild icing conditions. A weather report
of snow and blowing snow in the day time is actually significantly more dangerous
than those same conditions at night.
Your "go, no go" decision must be based on need to travel, vehicle capability
and driver. These alone are good enough to make the decision, but over emphasis
of any one of those factors does not compensate for the lack of the others. Many
people have great confidence in their robust four wheel drive SUV, or heavy
pickup truck and though these types of vehicles are a measure of positive safety,
they are not sufficient to compensate for a nervous inexperienced driver, or a frivolous
Now, let's consider some important factors that must be considered. The road you
are travelling must weigh heavily on your decision. If your trip involves travelling
on highway #16 (Yellowhead) or highway #1 you will be sharing the road
with semi-tractor "B" trains, who in ground drifting conditions, are well
above the surface of the highway and have much better visibility. As a result they
travel substantially faster than other traffic during ground drift situations.
These two highways are also choked with traffic twenty-four hours a day. Many of
those drivers are facing a winter storm for the first time and when it comes to danger,
two drivers come to mind as equally potential killers. The timid creeper
and the heavy foot SUV boss both will not fit into the normal stream of things
and the creeper will build up long sticks of traffic behind him, or her, and the
SUV heavy foot boss will take chances that exceed reasonable risk management. This
rule is absolute: Do not let yourself get caught in an almost bumper to bumper
parade at any speed. Multi-vehicle accidents are avoidable, if caught in one
pull off and let it creep on toward its destiny, you are far safer with room in front
and behind you then waiting for a semi to turn a stretch of highway into a metal
Once committed to travel handle the two killers, stress and fatigue.
Both require frequent stops and a strategy to keep you in the game. It is remarkably
important to deal with the stress levels of passengers as well, as their anxiety
can create a nasty climate in your vehicle, where the driver must remain focused
and in control, not fighting for control.
While highway #1 undivided and #16 are dangerous, because of their heavy traffic,
you must also consider the opposite as posing special problems of themselves. Saskatchewan
has a number of very lonely trails that do not have traffic at all and a mishap on
such a road will give you an opportunity to try out your survival kit packed neatly
in the trunk.
The last thing that needs to be emphasis is driver skill. You need practice to become
a safe driver. A fearful driver is not a safe driver, but a driver who has learned
the skills and knows themselves well, can make a huge difference in the risk management
situation. Here are some skills you need to master.
- Steer out of trouble: most cars and vans are
front wheel drive and practice in poor driving conditions will teach a driver to
use power to direct their vehicle. In light snow conditions and warmer temperatures,
which makes a slippery situation, modest gradual acceleration will put your vehicle
into a safe route, better than just steering and hoping for the best. Do your practicing
out of traffic, in conditions that are less than good, but not critical.
- Brakes are meant to be hammered: When most
of us learned to drive we were taught to apply gradual gentle pressure on the brake
peddle to get the desired results in a poor traction situation. If you are driving
the same car you learned to drive in fine, but if you have a vehicle with computer
controlled brake system, they work best when you hit the peddle with full force.
- The ditch is your refuge: When all else fails
park in the ditch. Getting towed out is a minor inconvenience and vastly superior
to funeral planning. If you are at highway speed and your vehicle catches the shoulder,
don't fight it, take control, clean up the vehicle's alignment and apply power to
get a nice clean entry into the ditch. If you ditch under control the likelihood
of a roll over is almost nil. In many parts of Saskatchewan, keep the power on, or
accelerate into the ditch and there is a good chance you will make the field and
have a chance at getting back on the road without a tow. Under no circumstance try
to save the day with a heroic sharp turn that will only determine the strength of
your vehicles roof.
- Determine safe speed: Snow on the surface
is trouble, it will cause your vehicle to be hard to control and can rob you of directionality.
Watch your speed, almost every snow cover condition needs a speed just for that condition,
that will give you enough momentum to maintain progress, and slow enough to maintain
a heading. On ice there simply may be no safe speed. Parked at a motel is the best
place for your car when it is hard to stand up. But like snow cover, with mild ice
there is a speed for that condition that is determined by control and ability to
get some braking action.
- Visibility fever: If you get trapped, on the
road travelling and suddenly lose visibility there are two things you must do. Maintain
control over your emotions, you must remain in control of the vehicle and yourself.
Hit the emergency blinkers, make no sudden moves and attempt a gradual deceleration
Do not attempt to move to the apron as a car ahead of you may already have pulled
off as he will have encountered the lose of visibility ahead of you. There is a remarkable
temptation to check the rear view mirror for over taking traffic, but resist that
because you must focus all attention ahead. When you spot an intersection or farm
access you have found your parking place, get at least one car length off the highway.