It’s one thing to winterize your fleet, but what about the drivers who are expected to operate vehicles in harsh winter conditions to repair downed power lines or a broken water main? Are they winterized as well?
This is an important question because snow, sleet and ice impact how a vehicle accelerates, handles and stops. And if your crews aren’t prepared with the driving skills and mindset they need to safely navigate hazardous winter roads, they’re putting their health, the public and your utility’s reputation at risk.
So, how can your organization effectively winterize your drivers? UFP spoke with Art Liggio, president of Driving Dynamics Inc. (www.drivingdynamics.com), a Newark, Del.-based firm that provides companies with advanced performance driver safety training and fleet risk management expertise. He offered these three tips.
1. Reduce speed as conditions deteriorate.
“While you can actually move quite fast in a straight line on ice and snow, once you have to stop or turn, the laws of physics start to catch up with you,” Liggio said. “Drive responsibly by slowing down and staying vigilant in maintaining a sufficient safety zone.”
Liggio recommends that drivers avoid using the brake whenever possible in deteriorating weather conditions. “Slow down early enough, so you can roll up to a traffic light change without having to brake completely,” he said. “When coasting to slow down, it’s still important to engage your brake lights by lightly pressing the brake pedal so those behind you understand that you are in the process of slowing. But when you do need to stop or slow down, start braking early and gently to keep yourself and others behind you in control.”
2. Know where to focus your eyes.
How do you safely maneuver the vehicle when it begins to skid on ice? The answer starts with your eyes.
“When drivers sense the vehicle is skidding on ice, their tendency is to jerk the steering wheel frantically in all different directions, with their eyes focused on what they want to avoid, like oncoming traffic or parked vehicles, or pedestrians. But what happens is that where you focus your eyes, is where you’re actually pointing the vehicle – toward what you’re trying to avoid,” Liggio said.
This is called “target fixation,” and drivers should focus their eyes on targets that lead them to safety.
“Once you’re able to identify an acceptable escape route, get the wheels pointed in that direction, no matter which direction the vehicle is moving,” Liggio said. “This could be the side of the road or somewhere that would minimize harm to you and the public. Keep your eyes – and the wheels – aimed at where you want to go, not on what you’re trying to avoid.”
3. Adjust for fluctuations in weight distribution.
Weight distribution changes the handling characteristics of a vehicle. If a driver operates a fully loaded truck at the beginning of the day and then unloads it, the empty truck is going perform much differently in terms of center of gravity, acceleration, braking and traction on wintry roads.
“If the truck is fully loaded, that can help with the traction, especially in the rear of the vehicle,” Liggio said. “But as the truck is unloaded, there is less weight on the vehicle and that could increase the potential of slippage in icy conditions. Also, if it’s a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, you might find in slow-moving conditions that as the weather gets worse, you’ll have problems accelerating and can’t get the truck to move.”
How do drivers counter this phenomenon? The starting point is to be aware of how changes in weight distribution can impact the vehicle’s performance and handling, especially in snow and ice conditions.
“You have that muscle memory so ingrained that if you’re used to driving the vehicle at full load, you will likely revert to driving like that even if the vehicle is empty, unless you make yourself more attentive to the changes,” Liggio said.
Hardwiring Safe Winter Driving Skills
How often should drivers be trained for winter driving techniques to instill safe habits? Liggio recommends that drivers receive hands-on instruction – in a training vehicle on a closed course and/or in a simulator – at least once every three years, plus an online refresher course prior to winter in the intervening years to reinforce what they’ve learned.
So, if your fleet operates in an area known for harsh winters, are your drivers and crews ready? Have they been “winterized” – equipped with the enhanced driving awareness and skills they need to safely operate vehicles in snowy and icy conditions?
Winter Weather-Related Crash Statistics
Winter weather can wreak havoc on road conditions and driver safety. Consider these statistics compiled by the Federal Highway Administration, which represent annual averages in the U.S.
Snow/Sleet: 211,188 crashes; 58,011 persons injured; 769 fatalities
Icy Pavement: 154,580 crashes; 45,133 persons injured; 580 fatalities
Snow/Slushy Pavement: 175,233 crashes; 43,503 persons injured; 572 fatalities