Winter driving 101
Tricky winter driving is just one of the facts of life for locals in the Tahoe-Truckee area.Whether its dealing with slippery roads after a storm, dodging chunks of ice flying off a cars roof as the driver motors blissfully unaware down the road, or watching car after car slowly spin out into a snow bank everybody has had an experience.That is, everybody but people like me. Going into my first winter in the mountains after a snow-free life in the lower elevations of California, I thought it may be wise and slightly entertaining to seek out the experiences of others to prepare for the coming season.After speaking to people whose jobs put them out in the elements all winter long cops, tow-truck drivers and other locals I found driving in the winter is more than a winter driving tips list in a Caltrans pamphlet (even though I read mine with absorption from cover to cover).After talking to those people, sitting in on a winter-driving class and riding along with the CHP, I got the best winter driving tips and techniques, where to drive and where to avoid, and what one does and doesnt do to keep from irritating local cops.One thing came through loud and clear, however: Winter driving is serious business.Our officers are going from crash to crash constantly moving, says California Highway Patrol Officer Steve Skeen. In a good snow storm we could get 20 to 70 crashes in a shift.
As the back end of my car swings out to the side and I drift helplessly toward that big snow plow, I think This isnt a good time to debate the meaning of Turn into the spin.Forget about left or right with counter steering, CHP Sgt. Larry Bousquet says. Just turn the direction you want to go. Bousquet has been teaching a winter driving safety class for seven years, and has gotten a lot of questions on which way to turn the wheel when things get dicey.His course is lecture-based, but when I ask about a hands-on winter-driving course, he says I am out of luck. The CHP had a behind-the-wheel course years ago, but when a student totaled the car and CHP had to pay for it the course was canceled.Hounded by students in the winter driving class for hands-on experience, Bousquet says an empty parking lot could be used as a place to practice, but as a liability-minded police officer he hesitates to suggest any place in particular. And, of course, he stresses being careful.Once, after taking a squad car up to the parking lot at Boreal to train for winter driving spinning out and regaining control Bousquet says he came across a car full of snowboarders that had slid-out on eastbound Interstate 80.A passenger told me they had seen a police car doing it up in the parking lot, Bousquet says with a laugh.
Talking to locals about the traffic that comes with heavy snow and big ski weekends, I watch suppressed frustration come to a boil. But when I ask about secret backroads to avoid the mess, a few have a mischievous glimmer in their eyes.Im not telling my secret back roads, that would ruin them wouldnt it? jokes Tal Fletcher, owner of Mountain Cab and Squaw Valley Taxi. Fletcher, however, cant let bad weather or ski traffic make his cabs late.Really, you need to just budget more time, he says. Id rather tell a customer it will take an hour and a half and actually take an hour than the other way around.Placer County sheriffs Lt. Jeff Granum says common back roads North Shore drivers use to avoid traffic include Fairway Drive, Sequoia Avenue, and the surface streets through Kings Beach to avoid the intersection at Highway 267 and Highway 28.Meanwhile, in Truckee, where a closure of I-80 can turn parts of town into a parking lot, there isnt much do but wait.There are not a lot of ways to avoid stopping people try to avoid Donner Pass Road or go up Old 40 to avoid chain control, but once you are in town you really cant avoid chain controls or gridlock, says Truckee police Sgt. Ted Bier.The CHPs Skeen says using Old Highway 40 in the winter just isnt worth it.Big rigs will try and come through Old 40 to avoid road-closures and chain controls and get stuck its always worse off there than the freeway will ever be, Skeen says.
One of the more annoying things I deal with is people not cleaning their windshield of snow, says Truckee police Sgt. Jason Litchie. That will get you a big ticket.Nonetheless, weve all seen the snow-on-the-windshield, head-out-the-window driver and the four foot pile of snow on the mini-van roof. Some of us may even be guilty of such acts.I dont know why people do it. They may not have the tools to remove the snow or they may think it looks cool, says Placer County sheriffs Lt. Jeff Granum. But the snow comes flying off and either blocks the view through the windshield, or can go off the back and hit another car or even a pedestrian.Others were annoyed by people trying out alternate means of transportation on snowy roads.My pet peeve is snowmobiles on the road. We get quite a few calls in the winter, usually in residential areas, but Ive even seen them downtown, says Truckee police Sgt. Ted Bier.
Looking for the right gizmos for my car, I find different tools and technologies can help drivers get through the winter; some are under-utilized and others can make drivers over-confident.Fletcher says besides having an all four-wheel-drive fleet, using studs is the most important thing he does to prepare for winter.Its one thing for people coming up for the weekends, but it blows me away when locals dont have studded tires in the winter, Fletcher says.All the chains, studded winter tires, and four-wheel-drives will only take you so far, however. After that its just common sense and technique.One girl from San Francisco rolled off of Northwoods she walked away thankfully and says she had it in four-wheel-drive doing the 30 mile-per-hour speed limit thinking that four-wheel-drive is the end-all, Sgt. Bier recalls.Litchie says people need to realize that four-wheel-drive doesnt do anything for braking.A lot of people think that four-wheel-drive means four wheel stop; thats not true, he says. Four wheel drive only gives you better traction when the wheels are rotating. Chains are a big help when traction is poor, but only if they are put on correctly, Bier says, having seen more than his fair-share of chains tangled up in all the wrong places.Fletcher has also witnessed this first-hand.We have a lot of customers that need our services because they wrapped their chains around their axle, Fletcher says.
During Sgt. Bousquets winter driving course, nearly every-other slide in his Powerpoint presentation says slow down, stay off the brakes, slow down, stay off the brakes, slow down, stay off the brakes.Sometimes just staying at home during a bad storm is the best policy, Truckee PDs Litchie says.For me, the best advice if it is snowing is dont go out if you dont have to if you can avoid traveling then do so, Litchie says.The CHPs Skeen says it is important to stay aware and not get too over-confident.More of the accidents are people who are unfamiliar locals do a pretty good job because they have better experience and are better equipped, Skeen says. But sometimes locals confidence level can be too high and they will speed. But that goes for anybody really.Fletcher, meanwhile, simply says, Watch out for crowds. Watch out for Northwoods.
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