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Tips for winter driving

Q&A with Kevin Cooper, Creston driver's ed instructor

Kevin Cooper
Kevin Cooper

Many Crestonians woke up this morning to discover a snowy surprise. An early-morning inch or so of snow had already fallen, and another 1 to 3 inches is expected by the end of the day. Ice lies on top of many local roads, causing several area school districts — including Creston — to cancel the day’s classes.

Driving in conditions like these requires extra consideration. Local driver’s education expert Kevin Cooper, owner of Southwest Iowa Driver’s Education based out of Creston, provides his tips for winter driving below.

Q: What’s the No. 1, most important thing to keep in mind when driving in wintry (icy, snowy, cold) conditions?

A: One of the first concepts that we teach our new drivers is “The Basic Speed Law (BSL).” The BSL says that you can only go as fast the conditions allow you to, up to the speed limit.

Safe winter travel requires you to match your speed to the safety of the road and weather conditions. Many of the signs that we see like speed limit signs and advisory curve speed signs are set under ideal conditions. So when conditions aren’t ideal, you have to take that into consideration. The BSL is actually a ticketed offense in Iowa.

The other thing that we teach our students is to know when to just say “no” in regards to winter driving. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it, and the trip may or may not even be needed. We talk about the “NO TOW BAN” that the state can put in place, meaning if you get stuck during bad weather, they may not be able to come and help you.

Q: What do you need to change about how you brake, steer accelerate, etc., during winter driving?

A: In winter driving, everything we do needs to be more gradual or subtle. It will take longer to do almost everything, depending on the condition of the road.

That first slick condition of the season is where drivers have a hard time because they have spent the last eight months not having to worry about traction. And for steep hills in icy conditions, the driver needs to use extra caution and use slower speeds.

Q: What should you do if you find yourself sliding?

A: If a person finds themselves losing control of their steering or their traction, they need to do the best they can to remain calm and try to steer back in the direction that it needs to go.

Everything in winter driving revolves around the condition of the road, and the speed of your vehicle. This kind of goes back to the BSL — you can only go as fast as the conditions allow you to. On the highway, especially, you really need to make a decision — “is it worth it?”

Q: What are some tips for long-distance winter driving?

A: I think the biggest thing you need for long distance winter driving is a plan for the “what if.”

Extra blankets, extra food and a way to communicate are at the top of the list. We are a big advocate for a travel service like AAA or roadside service through your insurance company.

Often times people won’t look for the information until they need it on the side of the road. Plan ahead and program the numbers you need into your phone, and understand the process to get help if you are stuck somewhere in a stressful situation.

Q: Lots of people like to warm up their vehicles in the morning on cold winter days. What should they keep in mind when doing this?

A: As common as it is to warm up a vehicle, believe it or not it is illegal in some states. If you follow the news, you will oftentimes see cars that are stolen this way.

I would say a couple minutes warm-up is what we teach, but many people move into the unneeded or wasteful habit of letting their vehicle warm up TOO long.

Extra tips for winter driving (courtesy of the Iowa DOT):

• Check the weather forecast and road conditions before embarking on a trip. Check your local media, call 511, or go online for information. If conditions are expected to be less than ideal, you may want to postpone a discretionary trip or use more caution if the trip cannot be delayed.

• Always maintain a reasonable speed and safe following distance from the vehicle in front of you. Winter road conditions often result in longer stopping distances and reduced visibility.

• Turn on lights to see and be seen. Keep head and tail lights clear of snow.

• Avoid using cruise control in winter driving conditions. You need to be in control of your car when accelerating based on road conditions.

• If your car is equipped with anti-lock brakes, understand how to use them and what to expect when they are used.

• Don’t drive through “white out” conditions. Be patient, wait it out until conditions improve.

• Be aware that ramps and bridges may freeze before other roadway segments.

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