The Mountain Times

°F Thu, April 24, 2014

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The Zen of winter driving in Vermont

Vermont's rugged topography demands road savvy driving at all times of year, but winter requires extra diligence: corkscrew two-lane roads, abrupt grades, blind hills and curves, narrow mountain passes create an extra dimension of hazard. Add quirky weather, patchy cell-phone coverage, and the occasional moose, and you'll find you may need to adjust your usual driving style.
What follows is a set of driving practices that Vermonters have developed, which can be summed up in four words: patience, balance, harmony, and common sense.

Be Patient
Many people complain that "people drive too fast." But what is "too fast?" Posted speeds represent the top speed under ideal conditions. But drivers on Vermont roads are also expected to "drive to conditions." Winter conditions can call for reducing driving speed by at least one third.  "Too fast for conditions" always involves driver error, in the eyes of the law.  

Speed works in tandem with following distance. The old "one-car-length-for-every-ten-m.p.h." must be revised for conditions too. Even the so-called "4-second rule" (4 seconds between cars at any speed) needs to be doubled for winter conditions, especially in a line of cars.  It all adds up to giving yourself a generous cushion of space for braking.  In extreme conditions, turn on your warning flashers. Keep in mind also that a vehicle that's following you too close for comfort they may be looking for the next (rare) opportunity to pass legally. Don't spar with them and allow their risky decisions involve you. Instead pull over at the earliest safe opportunity and let them go by.

Stay Centered
Drive as you would walk while balancing a glass of water on your head: Maintain an even, speed using a lower gear to minimize the need for braking and avoid sudden moves.

Turn off cruise control. Especially on hills, the transmission can surge as it tries to maintain speed. Take your foot off the accelerator and let the car "coast" (in gear) over icy patches and drifted snow.

Avoid taking curves on the inside. Don't play the odds-always assume someone is coming toward you from the other side. Head-on collisions are rarely survivable. Just slow down and tiptoe around the curve in the middle of the lane or on the outside.

Seek harmony, don't fight
Vermont drivers use road conditions to help control the vehicle:
·   Vermont hills tend to be abrupt and steep. If you see sky up ahead where the road used to be, back off on the accelerator and let the hill slow the car down naturally. Downshift at the crest in a lower gear. Most automatic transmissions allow you to downshift while in motion.
·   Lightly brake when entering, and accelerate gently when leaving, a well-banked curve.
·   Coast (in gear) and steer gently around unbanked curves.
·   A strip of leftover snow or crust can provide better traction than a glazed surface. Look for the "rough" along the shoulder or between slick tire tracks in the lane and shift over slightly to position your side wheels in the rough, if slippery.

Trouble Spots to Watch For
Bridges, intersections, and shaded areas hold ice longer than the open road surface does. "Cold spots" linger in shaded curves, alongside streams, under overhanging evergreens, and where ledge extends beneath the roadbed. And while asphalt absorbs the sun's heat even on overcast days, "black ice" can form quickly when temperatures drop freezing moisture (drizzle, mist, or even tailpipe exhaust.)

Bridges and culverts are especially treacherous, since the road is chilled by the air flowing above and beneath it.

4WD and AWD tend to create the illusion of control at higher speeds. But as Sgt. Himmelsbach of the Middlebury State Police says, they are "great for traction but they have nothing to do with your handling or stopping ability." Driver trainer Tim Garrow says that at 50 m.p.h., you travel about 73 feet per second and your stopping distance is about 75 feet-under ideal conditions.  It takes the average person 1 ½ seconds to perceive and react to a developing situation up front.  In that interval you've already traveled 110 feet.  Stopping distance increases exponentially with faster speeds.  Add slippery conditions and the distances a car could travel before stopping exponentially increase.

Braking and ABS
Unlike 4WD, anti-lock brakes (ABS) are a true safety feature. ABS permits normal braking, but in a crunch, ABS prevents locking and the risk of skidding. Nevertheless, ABS takes some getting used to. As you brake you'll feel a sickening, crunching sensation underfoot, warning that you are on an unstable surface. This is a normal feature of ABS.

With ABS, pumping the brakes is obsolete, along with drum-brake systems. With ABS you should literally stand on that brake pedal, and the vehicle will come to a surprisingly fast complete stop. ABS also allows you to steer while braking to avoid an obstacle. (But be weary, a sharp turn can cause your car to flip.)

"Safe Roads at Safe Speeds"
The VTrans Snow and Ice Control Plan does not call for bare roads at all times in winter.  It states that "roads during a storm are plowed, sanded and salted to allow safe travel at safe speeds, but that drivers should expect to see snow on the roadway during a storm." Plows work between 4 a.m. and 10 p.m., with skeleton crews overnight as needed, but not normally during the height of a major storm.

The plan prioritizes state and federal roads for treatment as follows, as well as stipulating maximum speeds during a storm:
·   Heavily-traveled corridors such as Routes 4, 7, and the interstates receive priority. While crews are not required to keep them completely free of snow at all times, they must provide "full width bare pavement as soon as practical" following a storm.  Max. storm speed is 45 m.p.h.
·   Medium-traffic highways such as 107 and 100 are to be cleared to full-width bare pavement as soon as possible on "the next regular working day" after the storm.  Max. storm speed is 40 m.p.h.
·   Low-traffic roads such as Route 12 should be cleared to bare pavement down the centerline only on the next regular workday, to be followed by full-width bare pavement as soon as possible.  Max. storm speed is 35 m.p.h.

Even when the plows are fully deployed, they cannot deal with everything that Nature throws at us.  Drivers need to do their part to stay safe.  Reduce speed as conditions require.

Plow Truck Etiquette
A rig with its side wing lowered occupies one full driving lane, with close clearance along the shoulder.  Plows travel at 20-30 m.p.h.  Be respectful and don't crowd the plow. Modern plows employ complicated systems that demand maximum attention and skill of the operator. When the operator loses sight of you in his mirrors, that's when he begins to worry.

It is illegal to pass a working plow. So settle back and appreciate the fact that the plow is preparing a safe roadway for you!

Use GPS with caution
Apple is not alone when it comes to mapping glitches.  Local stories abound about cars and even semis ending up in the woods while following GPS or Google. A false promise of these devices is they offer to get you there by the shortest route.  Crows may be able to do it, but you could possibly end up on a lonely road that is closed for the winter, on a freezing night, without cell service. Road marked "Dead End" probably is, no matter what Google tells you! Believe official signage-turns for state routes are well marked.

Nature Rules
The most effective winter driving precaution is applied even before you leave the house.  "Do you really need to go somewhere?" asks Sgt. Himmelsbach. Thanks to NEXRAD, online weather forecasts are quite accurate, almost down to the hour.  In addition, you can call VTrans at 5-1-1 and get specific road information from a live person, 24/7. 

Your best choice may be simply to relax and enjoy the storm from a warm, safe room with a crackling fire. Here in Vermont, no one will think the worse of you because you chose to play it safe and stay cozy.