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Winter driving can be dangerous, but there are ways to make it safe

Summit Township road crews plow snow on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Butler Eagle File Photo

Year after year, vehicles slip and slide out of control all over the road as winter conditions wreak havoc, often rendering even the most experienced drivers in need of some help.

According to Christina Gibbs, community relations coordinator at PennDOT, last winter in Pennsylvania, preliminary data showed there were 4,841 crashes on snowy, slushy, or ice-covered roads, that resulted in 20 fatalities and 1,685 injuries.

“This highlights aggressive driving behaviors on snowy, slushy, or ice-covered road,” Gibbs said.

No matter what time of year it is, fast and aggressive driving can play a factor in whether an accident results in a fatality or not.

During the winter time though, those careless driving habits become much more prevalent.

“Last winter in Pennsylvania, preliminary data shows that there were 135 crashes resulting in one fatality and 61 injuries on snowy, slushy or ice-covered road where aggressive-driving behaviors such as speeding or making careless lane changes were factors,” Gibbs said.

AAA spokesperson Jim Garrity said when it comes to being prepared for driving in winter conditions, some of the best things drivers can do can be done before even setting foot in the vehicle.

A car drives down a driveway off North Washington Road in Concord Township, Pa. on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022. Butler Eagle File Photo

“It's all about getting the car ready,” Garrity said. “You need to switch over to winter tires, make sure the fluids are all checked out and make sure they are the right ones for this time of year. You want to have ones that have antifreeze properties to it so it doesn't freeze up the lines."

Once hitting the road, Garrity and Gibbs both said that practicing proper driving behavior is crucial to getting from point A to point B safely.

“You have to have the mental switch over this time of year to prepare for winter driving,” Garrity said. “You got to go a little extra slow; don't go out if you don't have to; leave extra early, if you have to. You got to give space between you and everyone else on the road."

Garrity said that proper preparation could often lead to “over confidence” by motorists in some instances, and he advises everyone to still drive with caution.

“ (Drivers) think they can handle any kind of weather, but in reality when it comes to ice, it affects all vehicles and takes away your traction with the road no matter what tires you have or what vehicle you're driving,” Garrity said.

Tire pressure can also be added to the pre-driving check list when colder weather moves in. Low tire pressure can bring down the handling of the vehicle, making it harder to brake because of less traction.

“That's kind of the unofficial moment, where you realize it's winter time, when the tire pressure sensor comes on,” Garrity said. “As the outside temperature drops, so does the pressure of the air in the tires.

“If you have an older vehicle that doesn't have that sensor, you have to get out and check to make sure pressure is still fitting the recommendation of your vehicle manufacturer.”

Garrity said vehicle recommendations for tire pressure can be found either in the owners manual and or on the side of the driver door.

Maintaining proper distance behind the vehicle in front of you is also important, Garrity said. The general recommendation from AAA is to remain five to six seconds behind the vehicle motorists are following when roads conditions are snowy or icy.

This extra time behind the person in front will also give more space if your car starts to skid, Garrity said.

If this happens, Garrity said there are two things drivers can do to help get the car back on the correct path.

“The rule of thumb is you face the wheel in the direction you want the car to go,” Garrity said. “You don't turn into the skid. Then also take your foot off the gas."

Other driving tips according to AAA includes:

Keep at least half a tank of fuel in your vehicle at all times.

Do not use cruise control when driving on any slippery surface, such as on ice and snow.

Apply the gas slowly to regain traction and avoid skids. Don’t try to get moving in a hurry and take time to slow down for a stoplight.

Don’t power up hills and don’t stop when going up a hill.

Before hitting the road, notify others and let them know your route, destination and estimated time of arrival.

Only go out if necessary. Even if you can drive well in bad weather, it’s better to avoid taking unnecessary risks by venturing out.

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