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5 things you should know about driving in winter

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It can get ugly quickly on the roads of B.C. Be prepared before you set out on winter trips, and if it's really nasty out there, seriously consider postponing your trip.

First, a look back at a near tragedy on a frozen B.C. highway

Rob Klovance
bchydro.com

One second you're rushing down a winter road to try to catch a flight to Vancouver out of Prince George. A few seconds later, you're in a snow-filled ditch, with a cut over an eye from an airbag – and the only way you can get out of the vehicle is to crawl through the rear of a car that no longer has a back end.

"It had been sheared right off," recalls Stuart, a BC Hydro manager whose memory of an incident that happened more than a decade in the past is still fresh in his mind.

Stuart did a whole lot of things wrong on that trip, including ignoring the anti-lock brake warning light on the dash of his rental car, not checking to see that he had winter tires (they were all-seasons) and rushing to pass a slow-moving semi-trailer on an icy road between Mackenzie and Prince George.

Once Stuart started passing the truck, he was surprised to find other vehicles lined up fairly tightly ahead of the truck, and a logging truck heading towards him from the other direction. He recalls considering three options: try to tuck in between the vehicles, accelerate and try to get to the front of the line, or brake and try to tuck back in behind the semi-trailer.

"I took the third option, but the vehicle immediately started weaving all over the road," he says. "I nearly made it back in, but got clipped by the oncoming logging truck, spun around and came to rest in a snow-filled ditch."

Today, Stuart brings that story (and others) to BC Hydro winter driving courses. And he doesn't care that members of his crew will sometimes grumble when he makes the call to not make a trip to a work site in stormy conditions.

"I've had several other experiences where people literally wanted to charge into the storm. And I've said, ‘No, we're not going.' Some people haven't taken it too well, thinking I'm overly cautious. But even if it ended up not being as bad as I anticipated, there were no consequences."

With help from Stuart, here are 5 things you should know about driving in winter. They could save your life, or the lives of others.

Sometimes, it's just better to stay home

Yeah, you'll probably get there. But why risk it? When the weather is really bad, postpone that trip or look for an alternate route that may not take you over a high mountain road. It's far slower to get from Kamloops to Vancouver via the Fraser Canyon, but sometimes, the Coquihalla's rain-in-Hope-snow-at-the-summit conditions just aren't worth the risk. I once opted for the bus across the Coquihalla, and it slid when changing lanes and hit the median. On the other side of the median was a 2-kilometre line of cars sitting on water-covered ice, so slick that cars were sliding off the road after they'd come to a stop. Deadly.

All-season tires are not winter tires

It's hard to believe that many British Columbians still take all-season tires onto snow-covered highways. It's now mandatory, from October 1 to March 31, to use winter, or mud-and-snow rated, tires on most B.C. highways. Tires displaying the 3-peaked mountain and snowflake symbol or the M+S (mud and snow) symbol, with at least 3.5mm tread, qualify as winter tires.

At BC Hydro, all vehicles are equipped with winter tires, and employees must always check for the mountain snowflake, general condition and wear of the tires. When renting vehicles, we request winter tires and provide 72 hours notice to ensure it gets done.

Get more information on winter tire requirements in B.C.

Drive to the conditions, even with an SUV

You've got that SUV and now you're ready for anything. But if 4-X-4 vehicles are so great in the snow, why is it common to see an SUV in a snowbank?

The answer is that a 4-x-4 vehicle can have great traction, if the vehicle has good snow tires and if it's not going too fast. The problem is that once a heavier vehicle starts to slide, it dramatically demonstrates Newton's First Law of Motion (An object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force).

Don't get cocky with your SUV, your all-wheel drive car, or because you drove the Salmo-Creston Highway for years. Get proper tires and slow down.

Before you venture out, top up your fluids (and pack an emergency kit)

We're not talking about topping up your Americano, although it does help to be alert. We're talking about your gas tank (at least half full) and your washer fluid (full, winter rated). Make sure you carefully plan your route, check your tires and lights, and that you have a backup jug of washer in the trunk plus an emergency kit to help you if you get stuck in the middle of nowhere. And don't wait until tomorrow to replace worn wiper blades. It's tough enough to see outside during a storm without having your sight compromised by streaks across the windshield.

Check all your lights before you go, and clean them en route

See if your headlights and taillights are in working order. You want to make sure you are seen and can be seen by your fellow drivers, especially at nighttime or during whiteout conditions when visibility is poor. And it doesn't take long on a slushy road for your lights to get covered in grime. Stop in a safe spot away from traffic and wipe them clean.

Rob Klovance is an editor/writer at bchydro.com.