Saturday, February 22, 2014

Survival - Winter Driving . . . NO!, I mean REAL FRICKIN’ WINTER DRIVING!!


Lynn: Hello??

ME: Hey Lynn – I’m going to punch out today, we have heavy sleet here, you seem to be having quite the blizzard there . . . I’m just not going to try and make it today. I’ll leave early in the morning – crews should have things settled down by then.

Lynn: Sounds like a good idea. I’m staying at the hospital tonight – don’t think I can make it home and it will give me a bit more time to get ready for Monday’s conversion.

ME: Sounds like a plan, see you mid-day tomorrow . . .

And so began my reminder lesson is “REAL FRICKIN’WINTER DRIVING!!” My customer is one of the thousands of hospitals nation-wide that must convert all XP machines to Windows 7 Professional (or higher) by April 8th. There’s been a bit of give on that but many of my hospital/nursing home customers are at panic’s door and they will have the conversion done come hell or high water. Lynn’s facility is one of 6 in a small chain I am working my way through, updating my real life’s work – a computerized employee and time management system that we designed specifically for the healthcare industry.

For me – my drop dead day is Friday, February 21st to have my updates done . . . there are no reprieves, no alternate dates, no options . . . and they are in the middle of a kick-ass blizzard that is simply pounding them into the ground. So, I’m off the hook for Thursday, the 20th . . . but committed to Friday the 21st, no matter what . . . alrighty then.

My past lesson on “REAL FRICKIN’WINTER DRIVING!!” is a few years in the past . . . December 1969, just before Christmas. I’ve not been home since my enlistment in June. I’m in Biloxi Mississippi in an electronics school and discover we will all be given 2-weeks leave during the holiday. I am outta there!! But, I’m also an E1 earning about $50 per month (yep, I said MONTH!!) so I needed a cheap way to get home. Enter a fellow squad member named Hale whose parents had purchased him a brand new Mustang before he reported for duty at the tech school . . . and he lived in Cleveland, Ohio! Just a hop, skip and jump in a puddle jumper from Cleveland to Detroit with a ticket price I could afford. My mom and Susie hopped in mom’s car and headed to Detroit to meet my plane and Hale and I headed to Cleveland. To this day I am amazed that he could maintain an average speed of 100 mph-ish and not have landed us in some cozy southern county jail. Yet, we made it to Cleveland with plenty of time to catch my flight to Detroit . . . and one of their largest ever ice storms.

The drive home was horrendous, virtually a continuous state on near panic while driving ½ on the road and half off for traction. A 2-hour drive turned into us being satisfied with arriving home safely mid-morning the next day. And while many of the fine details of the trip have been lost to more important memories . . . there are “tidbits” that remain.

The “universe” obviously thought that 44-years-ish was more than enough time and that perhaps a reminder of “REAL FRICKIN’WINTER DRIVING!!” was in order.

I’ve been driving in winter weather since the winter of 1966-1967. The winter of ’67 was “special” just take a look at some of the reports from this google search (the winter of 1967 Michigan). It was the beginning of learning that you either respected winter, what that season could do to the roads and the realization that I was nothing special when it comes to winter driving or a destroyed car might be the least of the possible results. They are among the lessons I have learned since that first winter experience . . . and I take them seriously. I thought perhaps a bit of time would be well spent on “REAL FRICKIN’WINTER DRIVING!!” even though the season is hopefully coming to an end. At the very least, since I did not get home again until after noon today, the 22nd, the memories and lessons are again fresh in my mind!

DON’T GO!! Seems Obvious, doesn’t it. Do not let the circumstances of the day, the emotions of the moment or the desires of your heart allow you to do something so stupid as to venture into what could be, quite literally, a life-threatening situation.

I made the right choice Thursday – and packed it in secure in the knowledge that road crews can move heaven and earth over night to open up a federal highway – in this case I-35. That said, I allowed the needs of the customer to override my good judgment the next day. An early scan of road conditions showed flashing red lines virtually everywhere I was headed along with a couple “the frickin’ road is closed, dumbass” markers thrown in for good measure.

It was at this point that I allowed my “abundance of experience” in driving in truly crappy winter weather to add to the mix of voices telling me I HAD TO GO and that I was skilled enough to make the trip. 7:30AM I climbed into the Jeep, firmly locked in 4WD and headed out on my 145-mile trip to Britt, Iowa.

So, while my judgment was certainly clouded by the needs of the moment, I AM NOT STUPID . . . (OK, stop chuckling!)

DRESS FOR WINTER! This seems obvious but remember the vast majority of times we climb into a car we are simply sitting in a conveyance that gets us from one place to another – usually in non-life-threatening conditions. It is very easy to dress the way you dress to take a quick trip into town or to the office rather than to dress for survival. People have died making this mistake . . .

The environment I was driving in was the very low teens, 20-30 mph winds and wind-chills pushing the -20*F range. That falls within one of my “Rules of 3” . . . In severe cold you have 3-hours to find suitable shelter before you die.

So, dress for the threat . . . dress as though if you ran off the road and was going to be stuck there for 10 minutes to 24 hours, you could remain comfortable. I wore my winter gear already outlined in my “Dressing for Cold Weather” post. My only two caveats – I wore my leather hiking boots and left the outer wear pants in the rear of the Jeep with my other survival gear. With this clothing, I had no concern of staying warm even if I needed to survive for an extended period of time.

One mistake many folks make is that they simply do not wear their coat. “Too bulky!” “Too hot!” I get it, really I do. But, if you slide off the road and roll down a hill you could easily be upside down with broken windows and trapped, unable to move. If you’ve stripped down to a light shirt/blouse for driving comfort . . . they will take you out in a ZipLoc when they find you the next day. Wear your damn coat and dial back on the heat a bit.

Carry your survival gear! Again obvious, but again often simply overlooked. I carry a full Boogie-Bag and a “Car Survival Kit” as well. Enough food for 3-days and enough gear to be comfortable if I’m in the middle of no-where in snow up to my butt with no real hope of rescue for a couple of days.

One quick side note on survival gear – just having it does not guarantee that it will save you. This is especially true if you’ve bought a kit, thrown it in your car and NEVER USED IT! Survival training should be part of your skill set just as a solid draw from concealment is. And it takes just as much effort to learn to survive in adverse conditions as it does to do that solid draw.

A final thought – throw a couple Cliff bars in your jacket pocket. Off the road . . . hidden by snow . . . upside down . . . trapped in your seat . . . a little comfort food easily accessible in your coat pocket can do a lot to take the edge of panic as you plan your self-rescue . . . or simply wait to be rescued.

You are NOT MAGICAL!! If you are driving down the road and count the cars/trucks/semis in the ditch or median by 10s . . . you may well join them. Just because you have a kick-ass 4WD vehicle, new snow tires and “years of experience” there is no guarantee that some goober won’t nudge you off the rise of the overpass just ahead. If you accept that you may well end up off the road and upside down, you can begin to mitigate your risks. If you refuse to accept that – your chances of arrival safely drop drastically.

Distance is your friend! The more distance between you and the vehicles in front of, behind of and next to you – the more time you have to react should the SHTF!. This can simply not be emphasized enough. While the temptation may be there to just “zip around” the slow moving fool just ahead of you – they may well be slow moving for a good reason. If you pull out to pass and see dozens of vehicles moving “slowly” ahead of you . . . well, this is the universe’s way of telling you not to be a dumbass!

I’m sure I’ll probably take crap for this piece of advice, but . . .

TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE STEERING WHEEL!! Yep, you read that right. IMNSHO the traditional 2-handed, 10 o’clock/2 o’clock steering wheel hold is an invitation to disaster. Let me explain . . .

While zooming down the road on my way to Britt at the mind numbing speed of 20mph with my right tires ridding the center of the “rumble strip” for traction and my left tires pretty much coasting down glass I was struck by heavy wind gusts (40-50 mph) from my left a number of times. The result? I am now traveling in a straight line . . . but cocked 30 degrees to the left . . . not ideal. AND, with two hands on the wheel there is almost an instinctive demand to turn the wheel to the right as quickly as you can to get back on track . . . the initiation of an oscillation with increasing negative feedback as you try to make one correction after another in rapid succession . . . typically not ending well . . .

However, with my standard driving position . . . left hand only, elbow on the window sill, steering wheel grasped with my left hand only – thumb and a couple fingers (my right hand resting on my right thigh) it in nearly impossible to react in a way that throws me into the “fight for control” but rather it allows a couple inch movement one way or another to settle things out. I the last 70 miles I got sideswiped by the wind a half-dozen times or so – any one of which could have sent me into a spin if I had reacted in a “typical” 2-handed manner.

You also need to RELAX! This dials into the death grip on the wheel with two hands. If you are tense, nervous, frightened and have a “firm grip” on the steering wheel . . . it will not go well as you begin to slip a bit sideways. Relax your body and just keep your head in the game!

NEVER TOUCH THE BREAK!!! EVER!!! Keep your damn foot off the brake – that is what the distance is for. If you begin closing on the vehicle in front of you, take your foot off the gas and coast to match speeds, then SLOWLY accelerate if you need to match speed at higher speeds. TO SLAM ON THE BREAKS IS DEATH!!! (well, you might not die, but I guaran-damn-tee ya you’ll hit the ditch!)

It takes what it takes! Time that is. As I said at the beginning, this was a 145 mile trip . . . and it took 7 hours. Yep . . . 7 hours. I saw roughly 150 vehicles in the median or off to the side of the road – everything from the smallest of cars to 18-wheelers. No favorites were shown on Friday. And – as a corollary to “It takes what it takes” . . . know when to call it quits. Before I reached my final destination I pulled into a motel and made reservations for the evening. My day did not start out with that intention – I brought no overnight bag. But, a quick stop after my customer call to a regional “Dime Store” took care of the necessities for the evening and allowed me to stay safe for the evening rather than trying to make it back home Friday evening.

As I headed home this morning after the first 20-30 miles being mildly crappy – the road cleared, dried and normal driving speeds were back.

And I felt confident the “universe” had a bit of a chuckle at the challenge / reminder thrown at me allowing me to refresh an old skillset for “REAL FRICKIN’WINTER DRIVING!!”

Be safe out there folks . . . Spring’s comin’!!


  1. Pretty good advice. We have the advantage of studded snow tires up here, but enough people manage to do something stupid to be included in your list.
    To all your advice about what to take along, and how to dress, I can only add, "Yup."

  2. That is al good advice. Just because I have a big 4 WD truck doesn't mean I'll plan on driving in weather I'd not take a car in. There were a few trips home for the weekend missed for the storms this year, but I'm here to regret the lost time.

  3. NOT fun, and good tips... I will have to admit I got 'comfortable' on the last trip and put my jacket in the passenger's seat... Not a good idea. Glad you made the trip in one piece.

  4. Got a good head lesson on "driving" on black ice a ways back, and I haven't forgotten it. Thanks for all the great pointers.

  5. This winter is pretty rough. Dangerous conditions become more obvious in the winter. The winter weather produces slippery roadways, and poor visibility. So, one should be well-trained to drive in winter season. Your blog provides lots of information and safety tips regarding this. Thanks for sharing such a marvelous posting. Corpus Christi Texas Approved Online Defensive Driving Training

  6. We're old :) they don't teach 10 and 2 anymore. My 16 year old learned 9 and 3 because of airbags. YMMV, obviously all the old Jeeps don't have SRS but if you see that logo you might train yourself to keep a lower hold on the wheel.