Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

January 6, 2014

TIDBITS: Give me my space in the snow

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — It was like Christmas all over again for our weather watching friends this past weekend as forecasts of sub-zero temperatures, unheard of wind chills and calls for strange winter weather inundated us wherever we went. If you were at a grocery store this past weekend, you probably saw folks stocking up.

It’s an ongoing joke that even a hint of snow means people will stock their pantries with enough food to feed an multitude for a week. Or at least enough milk, eggs and bread to get through a couple of days should the roads be in bad shape. And in this area of the country, a little snow really does have the ability to bring things to a standstill. Though our road crews worked diligently through the night Sunday, bitter cold and the fact that the state, rightly, doesn’t have an army of snowplows on call to clear all our roads. We have steep hills, we have deep hollars, and we have curves where you can meet yourself coming and going. Add some slippery, messy ice and snow and it’s a recipe for disaster.

That’s why you’ll keep hearing that you shouldn’t be traveling if you don’t have to. If you don’t have to go to work, if you don’t have to go to school, if there is any way at all that you can avoid being on those roads, then that’s what you should do.

Of course, the newspaper business is a bit like the United States Post Office. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these reporters from the swift completion of their appointed rounds and getting a paper out to the readers.”

So I was on the road Monday morning. And what an exciting trip to work it was.

There was a time when the idea of driving over snow covered roads, with perhaps a layer of ice underneath, would not have fazed me. I would have chiseled open my car door, started it warming up 30 minutes before I needed to leave and then hit the open road.

Now, I’m more hesitant. Perhaps it’s that wisdom that you’re promised will come with age. Perhaps it’s the memory of being stuck in a ditch and having to be pulled out by the nice folks in the four-wheel-drive truck a few years before and the knowledge that there isn’t always a four-wheel-drive truck-driving good samaritan nearby should you pull such a graceful driving stunt again. Either way, I put a bit more thought into getting into the car on mornings like Monday morning.

I live in Tansi, and if you’re at all familiar with the roads in Tansi, you know there are some hills — some hold your breath and keep a white-knuckled grip on the wheel hills. I decided to leave really early and take an alternate route because there is a terrible hill that meets the main road and I didn’t want to slide right through the intersection.

Once on the main road, things went a little better, but drivers, I have to ask you to remember, weather like this has the ability to turn seasoned drivers into nervous teenagers afraid of denting the car. And instead of an angry dad to deal with, there will be an angry insurance company. Well, they probably won’t be angry, but they’ll want that deductible, and that’s the same thing.

I like to have a little extra room on the road on days like that. I don’t like worrying if the car behind me knows how to stop a skid, or that slamming on the brakes of that big ol’ truck is likely to send him slamming right into the back of my car? You see, I know that I know these things, but I’m not 100 percent sure of my abilities. I worry even more about the other guy on the road with me.

Several years ago, I had someone tailgating me. What is merely an annoyance most days of the week became a terrifying experience when I came to the top of a snowy hill. It was one of those where you went down the hill and then went back up. Had the courteous driver to my rear not been pushing me to keep going, I would have stopped at the top of the hill, allowing a line of cars ahead of me to make their way down and up the hill.

Instead, I was in that line of cars when the lead car stalled and momentum came to a screeching, slipping, sliding halt. And there I was, halfway up the hill, with no momentum to carry me forward. I was at least still in the road. Some of the other cars weren’t so lucky, turning to the shoulder and a drop off to keep from getting too well acquainted with the car ahead of them.

GPS is a wonderful thing, and thanks to a serendipitous appearance of a side road I’d never noticed before, a quick check of the map, some careful maneuvering and the fact other drivers saw the mess on the hill and weren’t adding to the chaos, I was able to get off this road and make my way home.

So, if you have to be out and about when winter weather hits, please, be a courteous driver. The three-second rule of thumb other days of the year needs to be multiplied several times when the roads are bad, so that you can stop and the person in front of you doesn’t worry so much about you that they can pay better attention to the road ahead.

Brake gently. This helps to avoid skidding and sliding. If you feel your wheels start to lock up, ease off the brake.

Use your lights. Even if it’s sunny, all that snow and glare can make it harder for other drivers to see you.

Shift to a lower gear to help keep traction, especially on hills.

Watch out for ice on bridges and overpasses. These will freeze first. Back roads that don’t get a lot of traffic will also be hazardous.

Don’t pass a snow plow or a salt truck.

Brush up on how to respond if your back wheels skid. The feeling of this happening is still enough to raise my pulse rate and give me a queasy feeling in my stomach. But, you want to react quickly and keep your cool to avoid making a scary situation worse. Remember, take your foot off the gas. If the rear wheels are siding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right. They may start going the other way during your recovery. Keep calm and gently steer that way. It may take a few tries to regain control. If you have standard brakes, pump them gently. If you have anti-lock brakes, apply steady pressure, but do not pump the brakes. You will feel the brakes pulse and, if you’ve never had a car with anti-lock brakes before, you’ll be sure something is terribly, terribly wrong. But it’s not. This is normal.

If the front wheels skid, do not try to steer immediately. Take your foot off the gas and put the car in neutral. As you skid, the car will slow and you’ll regain traction and be able to steer. When you put the transmission back in drive, accelerate gently.

And finally, if you get stuck, don’t spin your wheels round and round. It will just make it worse. Turn your wheels to push snow out of the way and try to ease the car out. You can keep sand, kitty litter, salt, or gravel in your car or truck and use it to provide some traction to get you going again.

Be safe and remember, it’s only 72 days until spring.

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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesdays. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.