News and Tribune

December 13, 2013

STAWAR: Driving in a Winter Wonderland

Local guest columnist

— Last Friday was the first snow storm of the season. Like a lot of folks, my wife Diane and I left work early, trying to beat the storm, but we were too late, as snow and ice already covered the roadways. We had planned earlier to go to the Chicken House for dinner, but that was looking unlikely.

 Fortunately our  car negotiates the ice and snow pretty well. I'd like to take credit for the decision to get an all-wheel drive vehicle, but it was really Diane’s insistence on getting a car that was red in color, that resulted in us getting this one. The all-wheel drive works so well, that we were feeling   cocky as we left work and decided to drive out to the Chicken House anyway. We made it there just as they were about to close due to the weather. Luckily we were able to order some fried chicken to-go. On the way home we heard that a state of emergency had been officially declared for Floyd County. I told Diane that we had an emergency of sorts — only it was a “fried chicken emergency.”         

Later the News and Tribune reported that there were a number of weather-related accidents, but fortunately, no serious injuries. Along major thoroughfares, the Indiana State Police recounted that there were six crashes involving minor injuries, 20 cases of property damage, 38 slide-offs, but no incidents involving fried chicken.

Growing up in Illinois my father always kept a bucket of furnace clinkers in the trunk of his car in the winter, along with a small shovel. A clinker is the residue left after a coal fire. My father would shovel this stuff under his tires for traction. Other folks use sand for this purpose, but  the true winter connoisseur preferrs clinkers.  

He would also put concrete blocks in the trunk, one over each rear tire for traction. On very cold nights he’d run an extension cord from the garage so that he could put an electric light bulb under the hood to keep the car’s motor warm. We should have done that a couple of weeks ago, when we visited relatives in Wisconsin and the unseasonably cold weather destroyed our battery.  

Poor weather conditions are associated with  more than 1.5 million vehicular crashes in the United States each year. More than 7,000 Americans are killed annually and the cost is more than $42 billion. Poor weather is seen in over a quarter of all vehicular crashes and one in five highway fatalities.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that people are 36 percent more likely to be in an accident in January than July.

According to the website, Southern Indiana falls in the moderate risk zone for  winter accidents, while the area north of Indianapolis lies in the high risk zone. In the winter of 2008-2009, Indiana had the unwanted distinction of being the most deadly icy road state in the country with 50 fatalities.

 In 2005 Daniel Eisenberg from the University of California and Kenneth Warner from the University of Michigan published an definitive article in the American Journal of Public Health that analyzed the effects of snowfall on driving accidents over a 25-year period. They found that snowy days had 7 percent fewer fatal crashes than dry days,  but 23 percent more nonfatal-injury crashes, and 45 percent more crashes involving property damage.

Although snow generally makes driving more dangerous, by “reducing tire adherence” and limiting  visibility, this is offset, to some degree, by people driving  slower and more carefully. Also many folks refrain from driving  in such conditions. They concluded that “the weight of the evidence suggests that less severe crashes (those producing only property damage) increase during snows, while more severe crashes (those resulting in fatalities) decrease.”

The first snowfall of the year, however, is an exception and is usually more dangerous than other snowy days in regard to fatalities. First snowfalls often catch people unprepared to implement protective strategies. This is especially true in areas that get little snowfall. We once drove through Atlanta during a snow storm and drivers had a terrible time learning to adjust their speed to the slippery road conditions and run-offs littered the highway.

Elderly drivers typically have a lot of trouble with first snowfalls, including a higher fatality rate and an increased accident rate, which is almost three times the rate for younger drivers.  Eisenberg and Warner believe that drivers over 65 years in age may have more difficulty adjusting their driving behavior to match road conditions. They also may not curtail their driving during the first snowfall,  as much as they do later in the season.     

 The following winter driving tips are adapted from a suggestion from, the National Safety Council, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, and the state of Washington.   

• Avoid  unnecessary trips and wait until the snow plows have had a chance to clear the roads. Never try to pass a snow plow.  

• Reduce your speed to the point where you can maintain control of the vehicle. Allow for additional driving time and increase your estimated stopping distances and spacing at least threefold.

• Keep headlights on to increase visibility and keep them, as well as the windshield, clean.  

• Use low gears to increase traction on hills and don’t use the cruise control.

• Watch out for icy spots on bridges, overpasses, and little used roads.

• Check tire pressure frequently and adjust as necessary to improve traction.

• Consider using snow tires, studded tires, or chains. All are legal in Kentucky and Indiana during the winter months.

• If you get stuck, don’t spin your wheels. Turn the steering wheel from side to side to push snow out of the way. Clear snow from the wheel pathway with a shovel and sprinkle with sand or salt and then  ease your car out. Try rocking the vehicle by shifting from forward to reverse, and back again.  Check your owner's manual first to avoid transmission damage.

•  In a skid situation, look in the direction that you want your front wheels to go and steer in that direction. If rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right. Most newer vehicles have anti-lock brakes  which will enable you to maintain control of steering without pumping the brakes. If you feel the brakes pulsing, the anti-lock feature is working.

Finally be aware that while having four-wheel drive may help you get through the snow, it does nothing to help you stop, which is the most important thing when it comes to avoiding collisions. I'll have to remember that, the next time I have a fried chicken monkey on my back.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at