Hidden Dangers Of Winter Driving

winter driving

The beauty of falling snow in the mountains is certainly picturesque. Sitting inside near a fireplace as heavy rain pelts the roof is often peaceful.

But, aside from the postcard-type visuals, the concerns of winter storms are also visible, and sometimes not. Hidden dangers from driving in wintry conditions cause problematic situations.

The possibility of rain, snow, fog, sleet and ice greatly decrease visibility when driving.

“The biggest concern is driving too fast for the conditions,” said Steve Nelson, spokesperson for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) District 3, which serves 11 Sacramento Valley and Northern Sierra counties. “Motorists need to slow down in wet or snowy conditions. Allow additional travel time to get to your destination and be prepared for possible delays.”

Another threat posed to drivers is black ice, described by Nelson as when “a thin layer of ice forms on the roadway and it’s transparent, making it difficult for drivers to notice as compared to snow or slush.”

“That’s another reason why it’s important to slow down during winter conditions,” said Nelson. “Even when the highways are plowed and appear to be clear, there can be hidden dangers out there.”

If headed to the mountains for outdoor recreation and/or relaxation, Caltrans recommends several helpful tips before leaving:

  • Make sure brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater and exhaust system are working properly.
  • Check tires for proper inflation and tread. Always carry chains.
  • Other suggested items to carry include: ice scraper or commercial de-icer, a broom for brushing snow off car, a shovel to escape possibly being snowed in, and sand or burlap for traction if wheels become mired in snow.
  • Bring additional food and water supplies, as well as warm blankets and clothing.

For driving in winter storms, Caltrans, which manages more than 50,000 miles of highway and freeway lanes, offers these suggestions:

  • Allow enough time because trips to the mountains can take longer during the winter, especially with storm conditions or icy roads.
  • Keep gas tank full. It may be necessary to change routes or turn back during a bad storm or be stuck in a traffic delay.
  • Use car defroster to keep windshield and windows clear.
  • Reduce driving speeds.
  • Be more observant. Visibility is often limited in winter by weather conditions.
  • If car stalls, stay with the vehicle and try to conserve fuel while maintaining warmth. Be alert to any possible exhaust or monoxide problems.

Caltrans officials urge commuters to check road conditions regularly and to be aware of changing conditions. Call the Caltrans Highway Information Network at (800) 427-7623 for information in California and Western Nevada (Lake Tahoe/Reno area). The network is updated as conditions change, and is voice-activated for safety and convenience.

“If you’re driving up to snow country, carry chains or traction devices, pack an emergency kit with food and water, a flashlight and blankets,” Nelson said. “Make sure you leave with a full tank of gas, your tires are aired to the proper level, windshield wipers are in good condition and your cell phone is fully charged or you have a charger with you.”

Weekend travel was snarled early Friday morning in Southern California as multiple accidents occurred around 6 a.m. on southbound I-15 in the Cajon Pass resulting in a 20-mile traffic jam and up to a two-hour delay.

Nelson said Highway 89 over Emerald Bay in Northern California is closed due to snow slides, detouring drivers to Highways 28 and 50. The closure prevents commuters in Lake Tahoe from crossing South Shore to the West Shore on Highway 89.

December snowfall and early January storms have added 7 to 20 inches of snow in the Sierras, the Tahoe Daily Tribune reported. In Southern California, resort officials at Big Bear Lake said the area received at least 30 inches of snow since Jan. 5.

More snow and rain is expected across California this weekend.

Real-time images, chain control areas, any road closures and CHP incidents can be accessed from Caltrans here: http://quickmap.dot.ca.gov/.




Jonathan Gudel

Jonathan Gudel is a Public Information Officer for the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES). Since joining Cal OES, he has assisted in the response and recovery efforts of the Aliso Canyon Gas Leak, the state's historic drought, the Oroville Dam Emergency Spillway Incident, unprecedented winter storms in 2017, the 2017 October (Sonoma County) and December (Santa Barbara County) wildfires, the Camp Fire in 2018, the 2020 statewide fire siege, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, he worked in the newspaper industry for 12 years.

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