Be wary: Winter driving conditions persist

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Some of the most common photographic subjects that I see as a trial lawyer are, unfortunately, mangled cars and vehicle collision scenes.

In my experience, winter collisions seem to be increasingly common on the Kenai Peninsula, and there’s no good reason why that should occur. Collision rates for other states with similar winter driving conditions are lower than in Alaska. Alaska drivers, tend to rank in the bottom one-half of U.S. states in terms of their knowledge of traffic laws and driving skills.

In the past few weeks alone, several local residents have been seriously injured or killed as a result of winter highway collisions, while in other instances, alert and careful friends have been injured due to the actions of others. That’s why we’ll take a break this week from general photography and think about some ways that we can avoid becoming the subject of those vehicle collision photographs.

Although it’s common to call vehicular collisions “accidents,” they’re usually not true accidents but the predictable result of someone failing to use reasonable care and skill in a particular situation.

Common causes of collisions

  • Be aware of traffic laws and defensive-driving skills. The Department of Motor Vehicles provides a useful free booklet that is a good refresher. Among the most common violations, and among the most likely to lead to collisions and injuries, are people failing to keep a good lookout for other vehicles and dangerous situations, driving too fast for conditions, and trusting that they’ll have the same traction on slick winter roads as on dry summer highways.
  • Ensuring good visibility and seeing the traffic around you are particularly important during the winter months. Often, lines of sight at intersections are partially blocked by snow and plow berms, yet many people bravely pull out into traffic when they have not seen that 18-wheeler heading toward them from the left.
  •  One of the most common and dangerous driving behaviors seems to be drivers who are fixated upon looking right and seeing oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, even if they’re simply making a right turn and staying on the same side of the road. The real danger, for most people pulling out on to a highway, is traffic approaching them from the left, in their own lane. I’m aware of at least three such collisions in the past few weeks alone. As you approach vehicles about to enter traffic from your side of the road, look at the drivers who may pull out in front of you and be sure that you know that they have seen you. If you’re not sure about the people or situations around you, then temporarily slow down or take other avoidant action to increase your chance of avoiding those vehicles, even if those drivers are not careful.
  • Be sure that all of your lights work, are clean and are turned on day and night. I’ve seen a number of serious and fatal accidents where dirty lights and windshields have been a factor in failing to see danger ahead. A film or dirt on your headlight lens will reduce your nighttime visibility by as much as 70 percent. Use your headlights at all times. This helps other vehicles see and avoid you, even in daylight. Just because you can see what’s on the road ahead of you doesn’t mean that other drivers can just as easily see your gray car on a foggy morning. Even though Alaska’s skies are less crowded than its roads, aircraft typically use their landing lights while in flight so that they’re easily visible to other traffic and the air traffic controllers.
  • Don’t just scrape the outside of your front windshield. The side windows, wing mirrors and rear window are just as important. Fully defrost the interior of your windshield and windows before starting out. Frosty windows lower your ability to see, especially when facing toward the sun or oncoming nighttime traffic. I’ve seen a number of serious or fatal accidents where this was a major factor.
  • Be sure that your night visibility is greater than your braking and stopping distance at your nighttime driving speed. Most people feel that they can see the roadway and hazards at night in enough time to avoid them, but that’s usually not the case. You’ll need to look down the road quite a distance to anticipate and avoid dangerous situations, and that’s often difficult during nighttime winter driving, even when we’re not dealing with dark moose suddenly running suicidally in front of us. Repeated studies have shown that, even in good conditions, most drivers require between two and 2.5 seconds to recognize and correctly react to a dangerous situation before starting to take appropriate action like hard braking or avoidance. At 60 miles per hour, that’s between 176 and 220 feet just to react and start to respond. You’ll need even more time for braking or other evasive action, especially when the road is slippery. Driving 60 mph at night, you’ve already overdriven your headlights before you can even begin to react. Basically, you’re driving blind and blindly trusting providence.
  • Slowing down, for example to 45 mph, not only increases your ability to see and avoid dangerous situations but also reduces the total kinetic energy of your vehicle by nearly half. That’s because your vehicle’s total energy increases as the square of your speed. Reduced vehicle energy translates not only into better braking, less sliding and better control, but also significantly increases your survivability should a collision occur.
  • In the same way, accident reconstruction experts tell us that the best chance of avoiding serious injury in a head-on collision is to brake hard and slow down as much as possible before the collision, reducing the energy and violence of any collision that might occur. Even if there’s an oncoming vehicle in your own lane, I’ve been told by experts to brake hard, slow down and steer to the right rather than swerving to the left into oncoming traffic, resulting in an even more violent head-on collision. Tires really are where the rubber meets the road in winter driving conditions and are one of the most critical items for avoiding an accident in any season. Be sure that you have good tires that are appropriate for the season. “All-season” tires usually do poorly on winter roads, especially icy roads. Studded tires actually have about 20 percent less traction than regular tires on the dry highway pavement that’s common throughout most of the winter, except after a new snowfall.
  • The best winter tires appear to be newer types of soft rubber “micro-siped” tires with added traction compound. These grip slick surfaces better than studded tires. Since I’ve switched from “all-season” studded tires to micro-siped soft rubber tires on my old Chevy plow truck, I no longer find my tires losing traction on snow and ice, even when pushing a large pile of heavy, wet snow. Used with anti-lock brakes, soft-rubber winter tires provide better control and braking, often proving to be the margin that avoids a collision. The only downside to soft-rubber tires is that they wear out faster on dry roads and should be changed out each spring and fall.
  • Give yourself a lot more stopping room when it’s slippery and start slowing down a lot sooner for stop signs and intersections. Every Alaskan knows this, but inevitably there’s a big increase in rear-end collisions at stop signs and stopped school buses after snowfalls. Many, but not all, of those collisions are caused by drivers new to Alaska winter driving conditions but I’ve seen far too many cruising down highways and parking lots at the ragged edge of traction and control.
  • Getting back to photography, carry a charged compact digital camera or cellphone camera, just in case. If you’re involved in a collision, photograph and document everything, especially skid marks and vehicle locations, before anything is moved. Besides, Alaska is a beautiful place and you never know when you’ll see something more pleasant to take a picture of.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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