Four-wheel drives not invincible | SierraSun.com
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Four-wheel drives not invincible

SHERRY MAYS

With the increasing numbers of disabled vehicles littering area roads in inclement weather because of collisions, rollovers and single vehicle accidents, the California Highway Patrol warns drivers to better prepare for winter driving conditions: by preparing both their cars and their mindsets.

“Most of the vehicles that we find on their sides or roofs are 4-wheel-drive sport utility vehicles, which makes me think that the drivers of those cars aren’t realizing the limitations of their vehicles,” said Ron Wulff, CHP public affairs officer. “These accidents can be prevented.”

He added that Caltrans is attempting to advise motorists of conditions with the new signs installed on Interstate 80, and said it also implementing chain controls earlier during storms to prevent large numbers of vehicles from becoming stranded when a spinout or collision happens.

But the numbers of accidents, especially single vehicle accidents are not decreasing, convincing CHP officers that drivers aren’t driving properly in winter conditions, which includes icy or snow-covered roadways and reduced visibility with blowing snow.

“As usual we have Truckee-Tahoe residents that think their 4-wheel-drive vehicles are indestructible,” he said. “But more often than not, we are getting drivers from Reno, Sacramento and San Francisco that are speeding and operating their 4-wheel drives improperly. This is dangerous.”

One CHP officer who attempted to help a motorist in a 4-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle from sliding off an embankment, found that the driver, who had owned his vehicle for four years, thought he was in 4-wheel-drive, but hadn’t realized in that time that he had to push a button on the vehicle’s dashboard in order to put the car into 4-wheel-drive.

“This is an extreme case,” Wulff said. “But it’s not unusual.”

Wulff said the major problem is motorists who choose to drive at high speeds on ice and packed snow, or who don’t adjust their vehicles’ speed when road conditions are questionable.

When R1, chains or snow tread tires required, or R2, chains required on all vehicles except 4-wheel-drives with snow tread tires, chain restrictions are imposed, the speed limit on I-80 is 30 mph.

On state highways 89, 267 and 28 the speed limit is 25.

Radar is used to enforce these limits. R3 restrictions require all vehicles to use chains, but Caltrans usually closes roads before driving conditions are that bad.

Wulff said some side streets in Tahoe Donner or on the north shore of Lake Tahoe can see R3 conditions, even though no formal controls have been implemented.

He added that Northwoods Boulevard in Tahoe Donner and Talmont on Tahoe’s west shore are perfect examples of unregulated driving hazards.

Although it sounds obvious, Wulff said people have to realize it takes longer to roll to a stop on roads that are ice or snow covered than to stop on dry pavement.

Stopping distances are:

— On dry pavement – at 20 mph, it takes a vehicle 17 feet to stop.

— On glare ice – at 20 mph, it takes a vehicle with regular tires 149 feet to stop, a vehicle with regular snow tires 151 feet to stop, a vehicle with studded snow tires 120 feet to stop and a vehicle with reinforced tire chains 75 feet to stop.

“Packed snow equals ice when a vehicle is attempting to stop,” he said. “Four-wheel drives may have an easier time moving, but it takes them just as long to stop on ice. Four-wheel-drives slide just like 2-wheel drives do – all four wheels will slide.”

Wulff and Josh Susman, owner of Sierra Motors, said it may be a higher center of gravity that gets 4-wheel drive owners into trouble when they find themselves upside down in an embankment, but generally it is the drivers’ unrealistic sense of confidence in their sport utility vehicles.

“Four-wheel drives have limitations,” Susman said. “I can’t find any mechanical design that makes sport utilities more dangerous than 2-wheel drives. I think it is a higher level of confidence on the part of 4-wheel drive owners. The level of confidence has to be balanced with the weather conditions and the conditions of the roads.

“Four-wheel drive is a tool that has to be used properly.”

Winter driving

Wulff recommends that drivers prepare vehicles with caches of emergency supplies in the event of an accident or a road closure that prevents the movement of traffic.

The small “survival kit” should contain a small shovel, an extra blanket, gloves, clay-type litter for traction, an old warm jacket, snacks and water.

If a car is disabled, the CHP suggests exiting the vehicle and moving away from it to prevent injury in the event it is hit by another vehicle.

In addition, the patrol highly recommends not stopping on the side of the road.

“Most accidents happen when people stop to help other drivers who have stopped on the side of the road,” Wulff said. “People can be severely injured as pedestrians when they are standing outside their vehicles on the shoulders of roads. Passers-by should use their cellular phones or radios to alert CHP of motorists in need of help. Just keep going. It could save your life.”

Other recommendations for preparing for the safest trip possible are keeping gas tanks full in the event a road closure holds traffic or requires a detour, keeping windshields clean for maximum sight, carrying chains and making sure tires are properly inflated, making sure heaters, defrosters and windshield wipers are in top condition, and above all, according Wulff, slowing down and allowing for enough time to get from point A to point B.

“We’re all on Truckee time in the winter,” he said. “People will understand when guests or customers show up several minutes late. It’s better than not showing up at all.”

For information, call Wulff at 587-3518.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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