Outside my windows is nothing but a broiling shroud of white. The snow is all there has ever been, and all there will ever be.

Driving in white-out conditions can feel like that. And it can be terrifying.

I've spent a lot of timeless time doing it over the years, and rather well I might add. I've never gone in the ditch (knocking on my desk...), and I grew up and learned how to drive in a place where, well, I'll just say that going in the ditch was a relatively commonplace activity. And just in the last few weeks mother nature has seen fit to give me a refresher course.

So I felt I'd offer some musings and advice to those who may need to face those conditions.

The first and most important part, of course, is

Don't drive in it
If you can, leave your car in park for today and shovel some snow or blog or something instead. Seriously.

But that isn't always possible.

If you're forced out in it, or caught in it, or think you might be, follow me below the fold.

Part of the trick is not letting the terror part happen. Recite the Litany: "Fear is the mind-killer"; or some "As I walk through the valley..." if that works for you. Just use whatever works, when the whiteness swallows you, to keep yourself from panicking and doing something regrettable, like slamming on the brakes. Hint: Don't slam on the brakes, if at all possible. A nightmare scenario is the bright red flash of someone's brake lights materializing 5 feet in front of your bumper. Not to mention that when you slam on the brakes on a slippery road whatever control you may have had over the car will all but disappear, and you'll be lucky to keep from going sideways and/or flipping. As is common sense for winter driving in any conditions, all changes in speed should be slow. Stopping entirely is also to be avoided, if you can. If you're on a two-lane road and the shoulder has not been plowed you will be blocking the road in that direction. And following traffic may not see you in time.

Distances between cars should be greater than usual. But try not to lose them, if you're lucky enough to have company going your direction. Extra eyes and hands in such a situation are always a welcome comfort, as long as they are keeping their distance also. As my dad taught me to always keep in mind while driving: it's the other assholes on the road that you have to watch out for.

Being alone is a lot worse though. I've found that being alone on the road during a true white-out, during the day, is the most unnerving driving experience I've ever had. At night you can tell by the shine of the headlights what the visibility is; it may be 5 feet but at least you were able to tell when it was cut short. During the day the headlights (which regardless should be kept on at all times) don't illuminate anything, and at times the snow-shroud, the road and all the world are the same dull white. The visibility can change without any visual clues. It can be very hard to tell 5 feet from 100 feet. Then those dreaded brake lights appear at 5 feet, and you slam on the brakes DOWNSHIFT. Then you apply the brakes as needed. Important: Always use the transmission to slow down if you can, that is if your car is appropriately geared for it. If not just do your best to go easy on the brakes. Once again though do not stop unless you absolutely have to. If you totally lose visibility for any length of time your only real option is to stop, but never forget that there may be someone unseen behind you.

Avoid distractions. Don't use your phone, don't mess with the radio, don't try to eat a Whopper, or a package of peanuts for that matter. It can wait. It doesn't matter how good a driver you are, or how clear it is at the moment, if you're braving white-out conditions the next time you look away from the road it may not be there when you look back. And the feeling under your feet may be the only thing telling you when you've left the road headed for the ditch.

Plan for that. Plan for the worst; bring plenty of clothes, charge up and bring the cellphone if you have one, make sure you have a full tank of gas, bring a shovel, first-aid/emergency kit with plenty of road flares. Bring a heavy blanket or sleeping bag in case you have to hunker down where you are for a while.

The snow is not to be trifled with. Certainly the condition of your vehicle, and especially the condition of your tires, can make a huge difference in your ability to handle these conditions. However even a four-wheel-drive with brand new snow-tires can be rendered helpless by the snow in a matter of seconds, if its driver is careless enough to let that happen. And that thing is nothing but a runaway behemoth when its driver can no longer see.

Once again the best advice is to stay home. But if you can't, be safe. And take it slow.

Update: I've edited as per indycam's suggestion in comments to ensure your car has a full tank of gas; please feel free to add any suggestions you may have.

boran2: If you have a traction-control system (TCS), make sure it is turned on.

paulitics: Steer into the skid A very good resource.

The old adage, "steer into the skid" remains the best advice, but it often confuses the new driver. The easiest way to explain how a driver should turn the wheels is to steer opposite the hood movement. Always look where you want the car to go. This will get the drivers, particularly new drivers, steering where they wish to go instead of trying to manipulate the rear end of their vehicle.

The steering action should be in proportion to the skid itself. Many drivers over-correct on the first skid, and are victims of the second more violent skid because of the original oversteer. No explanation will ever replace practising in a wide-open space with a professional driving instructor.

Most cars and light trucks and SUVs come equipped with anti-lock braking systems, and this technology requires practice -- lots of practice, in fact. Most drivers were taught to pump the brakes in an emergency. (On a personal note, it took me almost three months to be comfortable with my ABS system in winter driving conditions when I switched from a pump-and-steer technique to the new technology.)

peglyn: Try to keep good windshield wipers, and try to keep them clean of snow and ice. Doing so by banging them while rolling down the road isn't a good idea, however, due to the likelihood of damage to the blades.

Having your hand out the window during adverse conditions isn't a good idea either.


Originally posted to Hammerhand on Thu Feb 07, 2013 at 05:54 PM PST.

Also republished by Practical Survivalism and Sustainable Living.

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