Winter driving conditions arrive


Last updated 11/15/2022 at Noon


Just a little bit of the white stuff can alter driving conditions in Central Oregon.

Although Sisters Country will finish the year on the edge of a La Niña cycle (cooler and wetter), it is still impossible to predict with certainty how this will translate into snowfall — and, therefore, local driving conditions. It is best to be prepared for whatever nature brings.

In a “typical” year a mile section of road could simultaneously be dry, wet, packed snow, ice, and slush. These driving conditions are brought on by Sisters transitional elevation. At 3,142 feet, we are at the perfect elevation to experience every form of precipitation, sometimes all in the same 24-hour period. With those variables in mind it is incumbent upon drivers to constantly assess the road conditions all the way to their destination.

Here are a few tips to help you drive safely and get to where you’re going:

• Make sure your car is up to the challenges of whatever the weather brings. Check the condition of your wipers, before they’re needed. Keeping your window washer fluid top-upped with a fluid rated for below freezing temperature is essential.

• Tires are all-important. Not only good tread depth, but the right kind of tread to move through standing water, snow, ice, slush.

There are many variables here to consider: two-wheel, all-wheel, front-wheel, rear-wheel, four-wheel drive, and whether they will be installed on a pickup, sedan, or van; and your type of driving — around town, highway or over “The Pass.” On these points, best to consult your tire professional on what will give you the best overall handling, safety, and gas mileage.

The only strong opinion we’ve found is that tires labeled “all season” are fine “as long as one of those seasons doesn’t include snow!”

Still, they may be fine for local trips as long as you understand the limitations of the design. Four-wheel or all-wheel drive may provide superior traction. However, know that, on ice, all vehicles can lose control and slide. If anything, four-wheel- or all-wheel-drive vehicles may lead to overconfidence.

• As you leave your driveway, find out how your vehicle will respond to road conditions.

This is done by a brake test at speeds of less than 15 mph.

Make sure no one is behind you when you do your brake test, lest you discover your neighbor giving you a love tap as they failed to assess the braking conditions.

Do this whenever conditions change, which could be as simple as moving from sunny, wet pavement, to shady, icy patches.

Go slow.

Brake early before stop signs and curves to make sure you maintain positive control and can safely stop in time.

This also goes for accelerating.

Are you cutting it close as you pull out in front of another car, only to have your wheels spinning at high RPM, yet your car barely moving, as the car you pulled out in front of is now madly braking, heading right for you?

Have options. If you are slowing to make a turn and can sense your car is not decelerating enough to safely make the turn without losing control, then abort the turn and go straight ahead until you can safely decelerate and turn. You may have to warn others with your horn you are not going to do as your blinker indicates. As the defensive driver, you should never pull out until you know for sure the other car is going to make a successful turn. The failure in going ahead with a turn when you don’t have 100 percent control over the speed or path of your car may have you sliding into an empty lane, or worse, into a car waiting there.

One technique in snowy, or icy road conditions is to decelerate safely as you creep your car onto a small snow berm on the shoulder where traction may be better and give you more control in decelerating.

If you lose control on a turn in town and find yourself sliding toward a curb, despite your wheels being cocked over all the way, it might be best to quickly straighten your wheels and take the curb straight on. Even at very slow speeds, with wheels turned and sliding, hitting a curb may bust an axle, making your car undrivable. Hitting a curb straight on may deflate a tire or possibly knock your wheels out of alignment, which is considerably cheaper than having to replace a broken axle.

• For the novice winter driver, ice is the biggest fear, and it should be approached with utmost caution. However, having the proper traction tires, or devices (chains), and awareness (through a deft touch of the steering wheel) of how well your tires are gripping the road surface will go a long way to keeping you out of trouble.

That said, slush can potentially be the most dangerous. Driving into a mound of the thick, wet stuff will definitely get your attention. In a split second that slush will take you and your car in a direction you hadn’t planned on going.

Stay calm, take your foot off the gas, and steer slowly and deliberately out of the slush. Be ready when your car breaks loose of slush’s grip and gets traction. You may discover the force you applied to steer your car back on track has caused a dangerous condition known as oversteer. This is an all too common reaction when a driver is surprised by loss of control and puts in way too much correction, potentially sending the vehicle from one loss-of-control state to another.

• Overdriving the conditions is the number-one sin committed by those who are involved in weather-related accidents.

The speed sign says 45mph, but the “basic rule” determined by road conditions may be much slower. Beyond overdriving the conditions and risking a slide into the ditch or another car, you can be ticketed by law enforcement if they simply observe you driving too fast for the conditions, and certainly if you hit another vehicle or damage property.

Following too close in compromised road conditions is another thing drivers do far too often.

At highway speeds (55mph), your car is covering 80 feet/second.

On average, it takes one second for your mind to take in the visual cue that brake lights just came on in the car in front of you, and another half-second to take appropriate action by determining how quickly you are closing the distance to the other vehicle and applying the correct amount of brake force.

Too much, you might skid and lose control.

Not enough, and you end up in a rear-end crash.

As you may know, the driver behind, who failed to maintain control at any speed, will be considered at fault.

That vehicle in front of you may have way better traction tires, so take that consideration to heart and give that vehicle another second or two of following distance.

That extra second may make the difference between a safe arrival or making excuses to a deputy, and your insurance company about why you couldn’t spare an extra second.

• Drive ahead as far as possible. If all you see is the vehicle in front of you, and not the vehicles ahead of them, or vehicles behind you, or turning onto your path, you are blinding yourself to the unfolding possibility of a very dynamic collision that could have been prevented by paying attention to as much of the big picture as you can take in. If you feel a car is following way too closely behind given the conditions, simply pull off (when safe) let them by, and then say a prayer for whomever they get behind next.

Following a large truck too close eliminates your visual information by over half. You have absolutely no idea what may be unfolding in front of that truck. A lightly weighted truck has more rubber, hence more friction on the road, and can stop in less time and space than you can. So increase your awareness by backing off and taking in more of the visual information that extra space provides.

• The best practice for winter driving may be using your imagination. Do you have a solution for any possible scenario that may unfold in front of you? Can you adjust your driving so that every possibility will have a solution, short of a Sasquatch in a pink tutu jumping in front of your vehicle? (Yeah, that would be tough one.)

• Practice won’t make you a perfect driver, however it will improve your skills and confidence in inclement conditions. Often the best place to practice is an empty parking lot covered in the white stuff. Here you can practice braking, steering, accelerating, and recovering from a slide. It will increase skills and confidence and possibly save you from a wreck. Besides, it’s also kind of fun.

Deschutes County offers an excellent and affordable skid-car driving course. Unfortunately, they are still sorting through the COVID backlog, and it may not be available to the public again until next fall.

It is up to you to assess your skills, your vehicle, and to combine experience, knowledge, and training to keep yourself and other drivers safe this winter season.


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