This evening one of my daughters, one of my sons and I went to Wasilla (about 30 miles away) for a fireside that the missionaries in our area had organized. When we left it was snowing here in Willow, about 10 miles south it was a rain snow mix, and about 10 miles past that it was just raining. Winter driving in Alaska. The roads however, were pretty clear. We sat through the fireside and it was a wonderful meeting. We stayed and ate a cookie, visited with a number of people, and then decided to head home. As I was leaving the parking lot I received a text from a young lady in my ward who had been traveling to a different activity that my other son had also attended. She wanted to know if he had made it home safely. I said I thought so, but I wasn’t home. She said they roads were really bad and they were just creeping along. She had to go about 45 miles past our house and then a 20 mile snow machine ride home, so she had a long drive ahead of her. I told her she could stay at our house if the roads got too bad, called my son to verify he had gotten home, and then continued on our way.
Leaving Wasilla it was raining still, and the roads were still wet. My son said the roads had been fine all the way home just an hour or so earlier, so I didn’t figure they would be bad when we left. I was mistaken. About 5 miles out of Wasilla I realized the roads had deteriorated rapidly in between when my son had left and when we were leaving. For the next 20 miles we slowed to about 35 miles per hour at the most. There were Semi trucks on the side of the road all along the way, some just waiting, others chaining their tires so they would have traction. There were cars slid off the side of the road and it was still actively precipitating, not full on rain, but enough that it was creating a lot of ice as it hit the road. We made our way slowly back to Willow. About 5 miles south of our home it started actively snowing and the roads were a lot better, snow covered but not icy and slick like they had been.
Over the last few years of driving to Seminary early in the morning, I have become much more comfortable driving on the winter roads in the dark. Rarely are they plowed as early as I need to leave. I was grateful this evening with the confidence I found as we drove home. I do have studded tires on my car, which makes a bigger difference than a lot of people realize. But studded tires aren’t a replacement for safe driving practices. Over the years I have learned a number of things that have helped me drive on bad roads.
First, and biggest, slow down. There is a correct speed to drive for every road condition that we find ourselves in, and it may not be anywhere close to the speed limit. Tonight it was 35 or so miles per hour in a 55 mile per hours zone. But everyone has a different speed they feel safe at as well. Sometimes we see people fly by us in poor conditions and wonder about whether we’ll see them 5 miles down the road in the ditch. Sometimes they are. Other times we find ourselves behind people going 10 or more miles per hour slower than we feel comfortable going, and it can be frustrating to follow when we could be going faster.
That leads me to the next suggestion, be patient with the other drivers on the road. Road rage often feels out of control today, and especially in poor driving conditions when we should be giving each other a break so we can all get home safe. Maybe we could drive faster, maybe we think the fast driver is crazy, but if we are patient with each other, again, we can all get home safe.
Don’t drive with cruise control on in the winter. This is the biggest cause of people sliding off the road here in Alaska. They get out on the road, get up to speed and put on the cruise control. The problem is, the computer in the car is propelling you forward whether your foot is on the gas or not. When your foot is on the gas and you react to move to the brake, you stop propelling yourself forward. That little bit of slow down, without the computer continuing your speed makes a huge difference. The reaction time of your foot moving from it’s resting position to the brake may only take a split second, but if the engine is still trying to keep up the speed, it can be the difference between an adjustment of speed and direction to ending up in the ditch, or worse, in an accident.
Don’t drive in 4 wheel drive. My husband says the difference between 2 wheel drive and 4 wheel drive is about 15 feet and a lot more stuck! 4 wheel drive is harder to control, and if you are not experienced in controlling a sliding 4 wheel drive vehicle, you should never drive like that. Plus, it wears out your 4 wheel drive to always be engaged. 2 wheel drive with a rear wheel drive car is fairly easy to steer out of a skid or slide. Front wheel drive or all wheel drive is a little bit different. It’s harder to slide or skid in a front wheel or all wheel drive car, but not impossible.
Get familiar with how to control your car ahead of time. One of the thing I always do with my kids when they are learning to drive is take them to an empty parking lot right after a snowfall and we go do doughnuts and slide around in the parking lot in whatever car they will be driving around. This gives them confidence and knowledge of how to control the car when they get in a situation where reaction time is critical. They don’t even have to think about it, just do. They are also familiar with their own car and how it feels. It makes a huge difference.
Poor driving conditions happen a lot in Alaska all through the winter, and conditions can change rapidly in many parts of the country. Having a thermometer in the car and knowing when it’s getting close to freezing, especially when it’s precipitating in any way, will also help you be more aware and conscientious of the roads. Snow and rain happen, and they can be beautiful or dangerous if you’re not prepared. Lastly, stay safe by paying attention to the roads and conditions around you rather than the distractions like phones and radios on the inside. No matter the road conditions, distracted driving is always dangerous driving.