Snow squalls are never a good thing to be caught in while driving, and while it’s easy to just say “Don’t leave the house,” many of us have to be on the road or otherwise get caught unawares by rapidly changing weather. So what should you do as a driver if you’re on the road, especially on a highway, when winter conditions deteriorate?
For starters, be weather wise. Know how conditions are developing on your entire route, and not just where you’re leaving from. Environment Canada issues special weather statements, advisories, watches, and warnings for bad winter weather, including blizzards, snow squalls, blowing snow, heavy snowfall, flash freezes, and freezing rain and drizzle. Understand the alerts terminology. “Special Weather Statements are the least urgent type of alert and are issued to let people know that conditions are unusual and could cause concern,” says Environment Canada. “Advisories are issued for specific weather events (like blowing snow, fog, freezing drizzle and frost) that are less severe, but could still significantly impact Canadians.
Watches alert you about weather conditions that are favourable for a storm or severe weather, which could cause safety concerns.” A warning “is an urgent message that severe weather is either occurring or will occur. Warnings are usually issued six to 24 hours in advance, although some severe weather (such as thunderstorms and tornadoes) can occur rapidly, with less than a half hour’s notice.”
Get a weather app for your phone that displays radar images. You will be able to see where squalls are active, and with time lapse how they are developing, before you head out, or while you’re stopped en route. If you’re driving with someone, your co-pilot can check the weather radar for you while under way. Environment Canada has a new free app, WeatherCAN, which includes hi-res radar, push notifications for weather alerts, and weather information that is tailored to where you are as you travel.
We spoke with Kerry Schmidt, a sergeant with the highway safety division of the Ontario Provincial Police, and quizzed him on strategies for making the best of a bad winter driving situation.
- Schmidt stresses the importance of being prepared, long before the weather turns on you, in case you are stranded or in a crash. Be dressed for the weather, not for the heated interior of the car. That means boots, gloves, jacket, hat. Have a charging cord for your phone, some food, a flashlight, jumper cables, and a tow rope. Your fuel tank should be at least half full, so you don’t run out while idling, either when stuck in traffic or trying to stay warm. And make sure someone knows where you’re headed and when you plan to arrive.
- Do the basic prep of the car before heading out. Clean the snow off all the windows and lights so you can see properly and everyone else has a chance to see you.
- Slow down, and drive to the conditions. “If you’re driving beyond the distance of your headlights, you just can’t stop in time,” says Schmidt.
- “Drive co-operatively,” he says. Keep an eye on the traffic ahead of you, so you’re prepared for sudden changes in speed.
- It’s not uncommon to see drivers using emergency flashers while driving in poor visibility, and Schmidt says “there’s a lot of debate” about their use. You should be driving with your full headlights (not just day lights). You can think about using the flashers to alert drivers behind you to a drastic speed reduction, “but once driving stabilizes, you should be using full headlights.” Basically flashers are useful as a temporary warning to drivers behind you that conditions, mainly the speed of traffic, are about to change quickly. The problem with leaving flashers on all the time in poor visibility is that they make it hard for other drivers to tell if you’re braking or signalling to turn.
- At night in heavy snow, don’t use high-beams, as the reflection off the falling snow is only going to blind you, not show you more of where you’re going. If you have fog lights, they will provide illumination to the side to help you stay on the road or in your lane.
- There’s no fail-safe response to whiteout conditions, but Schmidt says the answer is not to pull over onto the shoulder. “The shoulder is at least as dangerous as a live lane.” You can’t see what’s ahead of you as you pull over, so you can’t be sure if you’re on the shoulder or going into a ditch, “and you’re a sitting duck if another driver decides to pull over.” If you feel you need to get off the highway completely, “pull off somewhere safe, where you’re not within the path of travel.” If you remain on the highway, stay to the right (if the lane is clear of snow). It should go without saying that now is not the time to start passing people because you’re in a hurry.
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