The risks of the winter road

Winter driving is something we need to take seriously

A friend of mine recently threw in the towel and decided to just take the bus, instead. Part of his decision to drop the freedom of his car and embrace the occasional horrors of transit was that he didn’t like driving in inclement weather. Although Kamloops sees some pretty dry winters, it does occasionally get cold and icy, so I can’t fault him too much. Just last year I was involved in my first and only accident in 13 years of driving ­– a low-speed fender bender caused by icy roads. I already took winter driving seriously at that point, but it made me realize the risks we take just by going out in bad conditions.

Thankfully my accident was on a Kamloops city street. If it had happened somewhere else, like the Coquihalla highway, things might have ended differently. Because I have family all over B.C., I typically cross the province at least twice every year. I also grew up doing so and have taken all advice offered to me. One piece of advice stuck in particular: when conditions are bad, slow down. Sure, sometimes it has taken me seven hours to make a five-hour trip, but I made it there safe, even if I had to crawl along the highway at times.

In 2010, the RCMP released a list of tips for safe winter driving. Some of the tips are obvious and year-round, like don’t drive under the influence and make sure you wear your seatbelt, but some are worth following up on and paying attention to.

The RCMP suggests you pack an emergency kit for your vehicle. That’s good advice, I think. Some of B.C.’s roads are very remote, and although you’re likely to encounter traffic if you get stuck or crash, you might have to stick it out for a while. Consider roadside safety measures like flares, cones, flashlights and then comfort and survival items like water, food, blankets, gloves and even rescue items like shovels, chains and jumper cables.

They also advise you give yourself extra travel time. I think this is among the most important of the tips. On a straight stretch, it doesn’t really matter how icy the roads are, but this is B.C. – you’re going to hit a corner eventually, and it’s probably going to be a pretty hard one. If you’re going too fast into that corner, the best-case scenario is that you spin out and hit the guardrail, assuming there is one.

On top of giving yourself extra time to arrive at your destination, put some thought into where you might be able to stop along the way. Traveling through a town where you know someone? Make sure you’ve got their number, just in case.

The RCMP also says you should “learn and practice safe winter driving techniques before you need them.” This is something that is often overlooked, I think. I grew up loving winter driving, and the sight of a large, empty parking lot was beautiful to me. Practicing turns at speed in the snow, feeling what it’s like to completely lose control of your vehicle, knowing how and how long it takes to brake on ice… it’s not something you can learn on the highway without serious risk to yourself and other drivers.

But I worry that others don’t know the limits of their vehicle or the real conditions of the road. Sure, sometimes it’s obvious, like when the road is so icy that it’s shining back at you, but often it’s more like compact snow covered by a fresh snowfall, or a thick layer of ice covered by a thin layer of dirt.

Finally, plan ahead. B.C. has the great resource of DriveBC.ca. This site will show you webcams of any highway in the province and will report on events that might slow you down or make you want to slow down. I recommend checking it before every trip. Drive safe and slow down.