Driving in winter is challenging anywhere. The ice makes roads slick, causing skidding. Icy windows hamper visibility. Tires take a beating on rough roads. Wind and ice can cause trees or tree limbs to come crashing down on busy roads. Brakes lock and drivers careen off course. Some of these mishaps result in damage, injury and, at times, even death.
The initial calamity may be complicated by mechanical breakdown, cellphone failure, or getting hit by a car after leaving the protection of your own car to go for help on foot through a blinding storm.
Complicating these risk factors is the geography of the greater Oneonta area, featuring the Catskill Mountains, lots of fog and many winding, narrow, gravel roads. Winter conditions here, especially if one is traveling when a storm is in progress, can be harrowing.
Fortunately, there are people locally whose business it is to advise, educate and train motorists to cope with winter driving dangers. One of them is Al Vigna, who teaches driver’s education, as well as technology, to the students of Roxbury Central School.
Vigna advises his students, or any winter driver, to “slow down and stay alert. This combined with allowing additional space between you and the vehicles around you help create a margin of safety and reduce the risk of a crash considerably.”
David White, who teaches through the Baxter Driving School operating in Sidney and Oneonta and other nearby communities, takes a hands-on approach to teaching new drivers how to cope with icy roads.
“I take the new students to a parking lot, an empty one, or some other place where there isn’t going to be a lot of traffic, some nice, safe place,” White explained. “After letting the student get up some speed, I slam on the brakes just so they can see and get a feel for what a car is going to do out there when that happens.”
When “that” happens, White said the first thing to do is not to panic.
“If you happen to go into a skid, get your foot off the gas pedal until you are sure that you’re headed in a fairly straight line,” he said. “Turn your steering wheel in the direction you want to go.”
Motorists wanting to get some hands-on practice of their own can sign up for the New York State Traffic Survival Workshop, which is presented by the National Traffic Safety Institute. The one-day course covers defensive driving techniques designed to reduce damages and casualties caused by car accidents for a cost of $30.
John Iavino, an instructor with the program in Delaware County, said one key aspect of the class can be boiled down to a simple phrase.
“We do stress one thing: Slow down,” Iavino said. “Slow down because of conditions on the ground in the winter.”
Besides accidents, winter driving presents other hazards.
Vigna warned of the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning in winter. The odorless, poisonous gas can cause brain damage or death in those who breathe it too long, as happened in the Boston area during Winter Storm Nemo.
“Symptoms may include headache, dizziness and sleepiness,” Vigna said. “Older, rusty cars and a poorly maintained exhaust system increase the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. A continuous supply of fresh air flowing into the vehicle is a good defense.”
Vigna offered tips on offense, as well.
“Prepare your vehicle prior to the winter driving season,” says Vigna. “Make sure it is in proper working order mechanically.”
This may include, but not be limited to, checking your antifreeze, windshield wipers and defroster. A good set of properly inflated snow tires will help to maintain traction.
“Prior to traveling, be sure to clean all windows and lights to maximize visibility,” Vigna continued. “Carry an extra container of windshield washer fluid. Listen to the weather report. Always plan on extra time to get to your destination. It may be necessary to postpone traveling until driving conditions are safe. Use the low-beam headlights to see and be seen. High beams may limit visibility since they reflect back from falling snow.
“Keep emergency items in your trunk such as jumper cables, a small shovel, cat litter or sand for traction, and a flashlight,” added Vigna. “Cellphone reception in some of our rural areas isn’t always available and if a vehicle breaks down or becomes stuck in the snow, a driver may have to walk for help. If this is necessary, a warm pair of gloves, boots, hat and jacket placed in the trunk for emergency purposes will reduce the chance of cold weather injuries.”