One of the joys of the trucking business is the ability to travel across the country and experience the beauty of different roads from coast to coast. However, this also means you must prepare for various types of driving conditions. Whether you're driving through a busy metropolis or sparsely populated country roads, there are heightened risks to be aware of in winter. Here are some good practices to keep you and your cargo safe in the winter months.
Practice Proper Vehicle Maintenance
In unfavorable conditions, it’s especially important to inspect your vehicle before you get on the road. First, remember cold weather lowers battery power, so be sure yours is in good shape before the cold conditions take over. Also, for fifth wheel lubrication, make sure you’re using a winter-grade product – summer-grade lubricant in low temperatures could cause steering issues. Ensure there’s proper winter coolant in your radiator and there are no leaks. Check to make sure the heater, defroster and wiper blades are all in proper working order. If you haven’t used these things in a year or more, there is no guarantee they'll be functioning when you really need them! Most importantly, check your tires.
Be Prepared with Equipment and Supplies
Having the right gear is just as important as vehicle maintenance to get you through the most severe winter conditions. Some states require trucks to carry chains or cables during certain months, and they may mandate which axle(s) require chaining and the use of specific traction devices. Before setting out, make sure you know the laws in the states where you’re traveling.
Carrying a winter driving kit with you is highly recommended — you never know when one of these items could save your life. Potential items to stock in your kit include the following:
- Flashlight and batteries
- Extra clothing, such as warm layers, gloves, shoes, socks and rain gear
- Non-perishable food and water
- First aid kit
- Bag of sand or salt
- Extra washer fluid
- Windshield scraper and brush
- Jumper cables
- Tire chains or traction mats
- Cellphone and charger
- Lighter, matches and candles
Know the Road Conditions
Two things: have a good source for weather reports and a good thermometer. If your truck isn’t equipped with either of these, seriously consider the investment, as both are crucial to determining the safest routes and knowing what kinds of road conditions you’re dealing with. If you're unable to tell whether the road is icy or not and the temperature is hovering around freezing (32 degrees F), watch other vehicles to gauge the conditions. Sliding vehicles, lack of spray from tires and ice buildup on others’ vehicles are good indications the road is frozen. CB antennas that have ice buildup will bounce back and forth rapidly, which is another good signal that road conditions are dangerous.
React Properly When Things Go Wrong
There's always a chance things could go wrong when driving in dangerous winter conditions, whether it's your fault or not. The key is to respond quickly and smartly when they happen.
Frozen Brakes: If it gets cold enough, the brake lining could freeze to the drum if you set your brakes when they are still wet. To fix this, you will have to break them loose by either backing up so they will break free on their own or hitting them with a hammer to loosen them.
Skidding: If you find yourself skidding, quickly depress the clutch, look at the left mirror only and steer to get back in line with the trailer. Keep steering and counter-steering until you regain control, but don’t over-steer. If possible, avoid braking during this process even if there is an oncoming emergency. There is likely not enough room to stop without a collision, and you could easily make matters worse by slamming on the brakes. Avoid skidding altogether by not braking, turning, steering or accelerating too quickly
Jack-knifing: Countless studies show if you allow the tractor and trailer to be at more than a 15-degree angle to each other, your chances of regaining control are unlikely. However, you should still work to correct the jack-knife as soon as you recognize what is happening. Recover by steering until the trailer and tractor are realigned. Never use the brakes, but if you’re experiencing a trailer jack-knife (the wheels of the trailer are locked up as opposed to those of the tractor), you should use the accelerator to pull the trailer back in line.
The bottom line in winter driving is to think ahead about safety, be prepared and know your own limitations. You've heard it a thousand times, but in bad conditions, always increase your following distance, make smooth downshifts and take extra caution when traveling on ramps, bridges and overpasses. You have control over your own vehicle, but the driver next to you may not. Your best bet is to stay as far away from other vehicles as possible. Use common sense – if you feel uncomfortable or unsafe driving in the given conditions, do not drive.
Want to know more about trucking coverage in case you do have an accident? Higginbotham’s transportation experts have answers.