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Winter Wonderland?

By on January 7, 2011
RoadKing Mag

Mother Nature can be a trucker’s biggest nemesis. First she sprays cold rain across your windshield. Then she spits a blanket of snow on the roadway out in front of you. And if you’re most unlucky, she’ll throw up a wall of snow that keeps you from seeing anything.

This time of year the experts have one piece of advice: Be prepared for the worst.

High winds are a huge problem for lightweight carriers or truckers running empty, especially since you might not realize you have an issue until it’s too late. “The trailer gets out of shape and leans over so far before the driver even realizes what’s happening in the cab,’’ says Tom Bray, a former over-the-road driver who is now transportation management editor for J.J. Keller & Associates Inc.

Look for changes in stability when coming out from overpasses or sheltered areas, and when in doubt about cross winds, slow down. Speed is the issue. “You never see a trailer flip over in a parking lot,’’ Bray says.

When your tires lose traction with the road on full-blown ice, you lose all control. “What’s the safe speed for a truck on ice? Zero,’’ Bray says. “If it’s bad, just park the truck until they salt the roads and then go.’’ Look for the shiny spots through hilly or heavily wooded areas where shade can promote slick conditions.

Whiteout snows can instantly lower your visibility to zero and should have you inching over to the shoulder and praying you don’t hit anyone in front of you or that no one strikes your rig while you wait it out. Thick fog is tricky because it can come and go as you drive through hills and valleys. Sure, you’re pretty intimidated by the blanket of fog at first, but if it quickly comes and goes three times, avoid getting complacent. Slow down every time it hits again around the bend.

Collisions between vehicles and deer are on the rise. And there are other bigger threats looming by the roadside, especially in the northwestern and upper Midwest states, including elk and wild horses. What makes wildlife crashes a serious threat is that they are so random, Bray says. “Every driver has the story of the deer that was just standing on the side of the road and then suddenly crossed. The animals have an odd habit of getting in the way from time to time.’’

Dry snow in extremely cold temperatures is not so intimidating — some drivers compare it to running over sand. But loose snow piled up over warmer pavement presents problems.

Rain is a threat because it happens anywhere, anytime, and truckers and car drivers alike fail to make adjustments in their driving habits to account for slicker roads. “We drive so much in the rain, nobody gives it its due,’’ Bray says. “In the rain when something happens we need to get on the brakes, but we haven’t made speed and space adjustments.’’

It doesn’t happen often. But when there’s a rockslide, the results can be devastating. There’s no predicting a boulder crossing your path. “It’s not a common hazard, but it only has to happen once,’’ Bray says. “It can get bad in a hurry and there’s nothing you can do about it.’’

Like rain and whiteout snow, hail can cause great visibility problems. Sleet can cause spotty slippery spots on the road and make it difficult to keep your windshield cleared. And both can come on suddenly in the midst of a rainstorm. Again, watch your speed.

Have you ever approach a dip in the road or a bridge, where water is rushing in front of you and you’re not sure whether to proceed or pull over? Play it safe and pull over. Bray recalls a driver who came up to a swollen river and at one point he couldn’t see the ground under the rushing water. He drove through anyway, not realizing the bridge was washed away. Floods can turn fatal in a hurry, as drivers don’t realize that the force of flooding water can overtake even a heavy vehicle.

Hurricanes and tornadoes can cause devastating damage and threat to life. Fortunately, both are quite predictable, especially with today’s tracking and warning capabilities. A driver who pays attention to weather conditions is unlikely to head into the teeth of a storm.

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