11 December 2006

Winter Driving 101

This article is geared to conditions in my town, but is more entertaining than most. From the Sierra Sun.

Tricky winter driving is just one of the facts of life for locals in the Tahoe-Truckee area.

Whether it's dealing with slippery roads after a storm, dodging chunks of ice flying off a car's roof as the driver motors blissfully unaware down the road, or watching car after car slowly spin out into a snow bank - everybody has had an experience.

That is, everybody but people like me.

Going into my first winter in the mountains after a snow-free life in the lower elevations of California, I thought it may be wise - and slightly entertaining - to seek out the experiences of others to prepare for the coming season.

After speaking to people whose jobs put them out in the elements all winter long - cops, tow-truck drivers and other locals - I found driving in the winter is more than a "winter driving tips" list in a Caltrans pamphlet (even though I read mine with absorption from cover to cover).

After talking to those people, sitting in on a winter-driving class and riding along with the CHP, I got the best winter driving tips and techniques, where to drive and where to avoid, and what one does and doesn't do to keep from irritating local cops.

One thing came through loud and clear, however: Winter driving is serious business.
"Our officers are going from crash to crash - constantly moving," says California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Skeen. "In a good snow storm we could get 20 to 70 crashes in a shift."

Hounded by students in the winter driving class for hands-on experience, Bousquet says an empty parking lot could be used as a place to practice, but as a liability-minded police officer he hesitates to suggest any place in particular. And, of course, he stresses being careful.

Once, after taking a squad car up to the parking lot at Boreal to train for winter driving - spinning out and regaining control - Bousquet says he came across a car full of snowboarders that had slid-out on eastbound Interstate 80.

"A passenger told me they had seen a police car doing it up in the parking lot," Bousquet says with a laugh.

Snowboarders are kinda spun out anyway...

Talking to locals about the traffic that comes with heavy snow and big ski weekends, I watch suppressed frustration come to a boil. But when I ask about secret backroads to avoid the mess, a few have a mischievous glimmer in their eyes.

"I'm not telling my secret back roads, that would ruin them wouldn't it?" jokes Tal Fletcher, owner of Mountain Cab and Squaw Valley Taxi.

That guy lives about a block from me. Most of his taxis are Ford F350 4WD crew cab pickups.

"One of the more annoying things I deal with is people not cleaning their windshield" of snow, says Truckee police Sgt. Jason Litchie. "That will get you a big ticket."

Nonetheless, we've all seen the snow-on-the-windshield, head-out-the-window driver and the four foot pile of snow on the mini-van roof. Some of us may even be guilty of such acts.

"I don't know why people do it. They may not have the tools to remove the snow or they may think it looks cool," says Placer County sheriff's Lt. Jeff Granum. "But the snow comes flying off and either blocks the view through the windshield, or can go off the back and hit another car or even a pedestrian."

A foot or so of snow will lay chilly (heh) and be forgotten until the car heater has warmed the roof a little and broken the bond between the snow and the roof. The first time the driver hits the brakes, the roof-size chunk of snow will slde off and come down right in front of him. This is wonderful in traffic.

Looking for the right gizmos for my car, I find different tools and technologies can help drivers get through the winter; some are under-utilized and others can make drivers over-confident.

Fletcher says besides having an all four-wheel-drive fleet, using studs is the most important thing he does to prepare for winter.

"It's one thing for people coming up for the weekends, but it blows me away when locals don't have studded tires in the winter," Fletcher says.

Studs are fine. They work good. I've run 'em, but they're a real pain in the ass if you leave town for warmer climes during the winter. Like your daily commute to or from Reno. They're louder'n shit on clear pavement and the pavement tends to shove the studs into the tire. It's called a 'stud puncture'. Carry a plug kit and a pair of pliers to pull the offending stud out with. Also a spray bottle of soapy water to find which of the hundred or so studs did it this time and an air pump. This is a real fun deal on the shoulder of I-80 at 8 in the morning in freezing weather. It's not worth the hassle to me, but maybe I'm just lazy.

During Sgt. Bousquet's winter driving course, nearly every-other slide in his Powerpoint presentation says "slow down, stay off the brakes, slow down, stay off the brakes, slow down, stay off the brakes."

That's it in a nutshell.

The CHP's Skeen says it is important to stay aware and not get too over-confident.

"More of the accidents are people who are unfamiliar - locals do a pretty good job because they have better experience and are better equipped," Skeen says. "But sometimes locals' confidence level can be too high and they will speed. But that goes for anybody really."

Fletcher, meanwhile, simply says, "Watch out for crowds. Watch out for Northwoods."

I'm glad he mentioned Northwoods. Northwoods Boulevard is the main thoroughfare out of the large Tahoe-Donner subdivision. The top of Tahoe-Donner is the same elevation as Donner Summit and right on the same storm track. They get a lot of snow in big storms, measured in feet, not inches. The plows do their best to keep up with it, but you know how that goes. The road is very steep, dropping 1000 feet in just under a mile. Heavy weekend traffic compacts the snow and turns it into ice. The locals will go ten miles out the back roads to avoid that one mile stretch, which tees at the bottom directly across the street from the High School.

Tahoe-Donner has a high percentage of second-home owners who just come up to ski and may not be all that road-wise under heavy snow conditions. City drivers, they tend to follow too close and drive too fast.

Here's why you always want to carry your skis bottom-up on the roof rack of the Bimmer X5 that you don't really need in the Bay Area, but feel justified in lugging around four wheel drive components the rest of the time because you go to the mountains three times a year and it really impresses the neighbors.

You're heading out for the slopes of a fine winter's morn, and you're in a hurry to beat the crowds so the lift lines won't be so long. Maybe you're on the phone telling the folks you left three minutes ago how you're doing. You're maybe just a little too close behind that slowpoke local who doesn't understand how important it is that you save thirty seconds. His brake lights go on just for a second. You hit your brakes just like you would at home. Funny thing, instead of slowing, your car speeds up! You push 'em harder. Still won't slow down. Won't steer either. Must be something wrong with the car...

There's a little jog in the road here. Your car slides off the road up onto a snowbank. Then it turns over, and it's a straight shot to the traffic light at the bottom of the hill, a quarter of a mile away.

The skis are now flat on the ground. Should you avoid hitting any cars (locals coming down that hill watch their mirrors for this very reason) you'll be going as fast as you possibly can when you schuss upside-down through a main intersection into the High School.

Locals may applaud and hold up numbered signs for style points.

That scenario has happened more than once. I may have made up the part about the style points.

Drive safe, folks. Common sense is the key.

Drivers who are learning winter driving techniques the hard way are very entertaining if they don't include you in the learning process.

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