Monday Medical: Stay safe when winter driving

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It's the time of year when more cars are on the road because of the holidays. It's also the time when weather conditions can change suddenly and severely.

Sam Boyer of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs emphasizes that the key to safe holiday driving is to "drive the appropriate speed for conditions. Plan for more time when you are on the road and know what the conditions are," he said.

Here are a few more guidelines for safe winter driving:

n Beware of phantom shoulders on roads. Many times, what appears to be a very wide road or adequate shoulder is snow that has been plowed to the same level of the roadway, hiding ditches or drop-offs. If you must pull to the side of the road, do so slowly.

n Be alert at intersections and on hills. These are typically the most slippery portions of the roadway. With numerous drivers braking in the same area, ice becomes ultra-smooth and polished.

n Be very cautious when braking or accelerating. Try to choose less icy areas that offer better traction or grip, such as in fresh snow. When stopping on ice, brake harder early and then become lighter on the pedal as the car slows. This allows for precise adjustment if you encounter a surprisingly slippery spot.

n Use winter tires in winter conditions. Two identical vehicles, one with all-season tires and one with true "snow tires" will have traction variances of as much as 50 percent.

n Know your car and know your brakes. If you feel your anti-lock brake system engaging during everyday driving, you are driving too fast for the conditions; you need to slow down. Safe stopping may require repeatedly braking gently and easing up and then braking again.

"Apply the brake to slow the car down, release the brake to gain control, apply the brake again to slow down and release the brake to gain control," Boyer explained. "The anti-lock brake feature in many cars performs this cycle for us but there is a trade-off for this feature -- when using anti-lock brakes, the driver needs more space to stop the car."

It all comes down to traveling at speeds safe for conditions and allowing plenty of space between you and the car in front of you. Many newspaper accounts of fatal crashes note that the driver was "driving too fast for conditions." Safe speeds may be considerably below posted speed limits, depending on visibility, weather and road conditions.

Wherever your holiday plans take you, plan and ahead and be safe behind the wheel. Make sure that seat belts are fastened and that children are secured in child safety seats. Using seatbelts reduces the risk of injury and death in a motor vehicle accident by 40 percent to 50 percent.

If you drive at night, decrease your speed and increase your following distance. Don't tailgate. Be sure to get plenty of sleep the night before you start a long drive.

When driving for long periods of time, be sure to take a break at least every two hours. Stretch and take a short walk. Coffee is fine, but don't rely on caffeine to keep you awake, because its effects can wear off.

Avoiding alcohol is crucial. In addition to reducing coordination and reaction time and giving you a false sense of confidence, alcohol also makes you more vulnerable to falling asleep.

The key word for holiday driving -- and all winter driving -- is caution. Your vehicle speed should be adjusted to road conditions. Don't assume you have excellent grip with the road surface. Change speeds slowly, turn slowly and brake slowly.

As stated on Boyer's Center for Driving Sciences Web site, "Remember to anticipate problems, respond to them early and avoid panic. Winter driving can, and should be, an enjoyable, hazard-free experience for everyone."

-- Lisa A. Bankard, MS, is wellness coordinator for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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