In Litchfield County, we in emergency services have learned to expect that the first wintry weather will bring car accidents. People forget how much they need to slow down when the roads are slick. Also, people who have been putting off the purchase of new tires - or people who did not realize that they needed new tires - will go slip sliding away.
If you or a family member do not have winter driving experience (for instance, if you have a new teenage driver in your family), set aside time to learn in the safest environment you can find.
Tip #2: Drive at 80%
Racing professionals drive their cars at 100%, on the very edge of control. That leaves no room for error. On the road, driving a street car, you want to drive well within your limits. This is especially important in winter conditions. You may be a great driver in a solid car with winter tires. Nevertheless, if you are too close to the car in front of you and they lose control, you will not have time or room to take evasive action. Give yourself a buffer by driving well within your own capabilities and those of your car. Give yourself the gift of space and time to stay out of trouble.
Tip #3: Wear your seatbelt
In emergency services, we study something called "kinematics of trauma," which pretty much means "physics of trauma." We learn that if we know what has happened, we can make a decent guess at how badly people are injured. Thus, a fall from a great height is likely to result in serious injuries. A car accident at high speed is likely to have more serious injuries than a car accident at low speed. And a driver or passenger who is not wearing a seatbelt is more likely to have serious injuries than one who is belted in.
All of us who volunteer in emergency services have had the experience of arriving upon the scene of a motor vehicle accident to find a car that is totaled and a seatbelted driver and/or passengers who are basically fine. Seatbelts do not protect you from all injuries, but people who are in a solid car, wearing their seatbelts, with airbags, can come through very serious accidents with very minor injuries.
Tip #4: Be aware of micro-climates
Believe it or not, Washington has 89.5 miles of roadway. Those roads include one-lane and two-lane roads, dirt roads and paved roads, state roads and local roads. There are high spots and shaded sections that may be icy and slippery even when other road sections are dry. Because the responsibility for plowing is shared by the Town and the State, road conditions may be very different on different local roads.
Tip #5: Expect pedestrians
There are certain locations in Washington where you can expect to see pedestrians at all times of year: Washington Depot, The Gunnery (especially the crosswalk near Gunn Memorial Library and The Washington Club), Rumsey Hall. Be aware that children and teenagers do not always leave themselves or you enough of a safety margin when they cross the road. Also, Washington does have a few intrepid souls who run on our roads, and do so at all times of year and in all weather.
Tip #6: Keep your windshield clear
Make sure that your windshield wiper blades are in good shape, and that your windshield washer reservoir is full. You can get away with so-so wiper blades in spring, summer, and fall, but when the snow is really coming down, you will be in big trouble very quickly if you don't have good wiper blades and a reservoir full of windshield washer fluid. While you're at it, check to make sure that your rear-window defroster works.
Tip #7: Take stock of your car
Any mechanical problem that you have today will be that much more problematic in the winter. In the summer, it is inconvenient to break down. In the winter, it is likely to be dangerous. When snow piles up, it is harder to find a safe place to pull off the road. In winter weather, you can get very cold very quickly, especially if you don't have really good winter clothing in the car with you. When it's dark (and we have less daylight in the winter), it is harder for other drivers to see a disabled car or a person standing near a car.
In Car Talk's Winter Driving Tips, they point out that tire pressure drops by about one pound per ten degrees of temperature. If you last checked your tire pressure on a hot summer day and it's now a cold winter day, chances are good that your tire pressure is low. That affects your car's handling, and not for the better.
Tip #8: Know Your Car's Capabilities
Some cars are better than others. However, four-wheel and all-wheel vehicles do not stop or steer better on ice than two-wheel drive vehicles.
Tip #9: Use Your Headlights
Many cars now have headlights that turn on automatically when you start the car. In winter weather, you should have your headlights on at all times. It makes it much, much easier for other people to see you.
Tip #10: Take Stock of Yourself
We saved this tip for last, even though it is probably the most important one, because it is a difficult issue to tackle.
It is your privilege and your responsibility to evaluate whether you are fit to drive. There are many factors that may affect your fitness to drive, ranging from medical conditions to being under the influence to lack of experience in winter weather driving.
The USAA Educational Foundation offers a terrific driving skills self assessment (see link above). The questions it asks are applicable to anyone whose physical abilities or judgment are impaired for any reason. Questions cover Fitness (Is it difficult to look over your shoulder before changing lanes?), Concentration and Reaction (Do you take medications that make you drowsy?), and Vision and Hearing (At night, do the taillights ahead of you appear to double?).
Remember that if there is any factor that affects your ability to drive safely, you have many options that will keep you and others safe. These include such steps as having a designated driver, or limiting your driving to daylight hours or dry conditions.