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Extreme weather driving

The colder, darker days are now upon us, with the winter solstice (the shortest day) less than a month away.  For those in the hotter bits of our country, this will come as a bit of a relief.  However, for those of us who are tucked down in the more temperate parts, winter can bring some motoring challenges.

Whether we do our driving on the open road or around town or a mixture of both, the cops and other experts tell us that we should drive to the conditions and that the speeds and driving styles that suit fine sunny days with no wind aren’t quite what’s appropriate when things are darker, wetter, windier, frostier, etc.  The civil engineers and traffic analysts who study crash patterns so they can make roads safer always record whether an accident took place in rainy weather or something other than fine days.

If you haven’t already had some advice on how to drive in the curlier weather conditions that winter can throw at us (and other seasons – let’s admit it), then here’s some tips to follow.

Rain: Slow down.  Water reduces friction, and the road surface is covered with it.  The slicker the road surface and the slicker your tyres, the more likely you are to get into a skid.  Allow extra distance for braking on corners or in when following.  If you don’t have the rain-sensing window wipers, then make sure that you use your wipers and get them at the right speed.  It’s usually wise to check your wiper blades at the start of the wetter weather and make sure that they’re in good nick – replace them if necessary.  Try to avoid going near or crossing rivers that are likely to flood.

Hail: Hail is like rain but more so.  Ice is even more slippery than water and hail can sit around on the road for longer until it melts. If hail is particularly heavy, pull over and wait until it eases.  It doesn’t happen often, but you do hear of hailstones that are big enough to smash windows, and you don’t want to be travelling at speed if one of these falls and collects your windscreen. 

Strong wind:  Very strong winds can make taller vehicles unstable, especially vans and trucks.  On other vehicles, cross-winds and headwinds can exert quite a lot of pressure on your car.  Watch out for places where you go from sheltered spots to exposed spots so the wind doesn’t take you by surprise.  Always watch out for whoever’s in front of you.  Motorbikes and bikes may be overbalanced by sudden gusts, so be prepared to stop or swerve to avoid them.  Also watch your load if you are towing a trailer – stuff is more likely to be blown out in a high wind, so make sure your load is covered properly.  Watch out for debris when driving in a high wind.  Normally, an old newspaper isn’t much of a driving hazard, but if it lands on your windscreen and gets caught in the wipers, it will be. Also watch out for trees and power lines coming down.  If you do get a power line coming down and the wires fall on your car, turn your engine off, stay in your car and don’t touch anything metal.  You’ll have to wait until the experts come and get you out, so find some way of amusing yourself.

Fog:  Slow down and put your lights on dip, unless you have fog lights.  If you do have fog lights, turn them on!  Depending on how thick the fog is, you may need to slow to an absolute crawl to make sure you can stop or turn in time when something looms out of the fog. In our neck of the woods, a mother and her daughter were travelling home at night and ploughed into a mob of cows while driving in foggy conditions. Thankfully they were ok, but the late model Commodore was a complete right off!

Frost:  Be careful on corners, as you will have next to no traction.  Slow down, and brake gently well in advance.  Be especially careful on bridges during light frosts, as bridges don’t have the insulating effect of earth underneath the middle and can be frosty when other bits of the road aren’t – I’ve had a close call with these conditions.  If you are going over the Tasman for the winter, you may find that some New Zealand roads have loose grit put down on them do increase the surface area of roads in frosty conditions – drive these like a regular gravel road.

Snow: We’re unlikely to get the sort of snow that blocks the roads for days over here, but it’s always best not to drive in snow if you can avoid it.  If you do have to drive in the snow or if you want to have fun in the snow – for example, if you’re a ski bunny – carry chains and a shovel, and slow down.  You’re handling ice, so watch out when cornering. 

Thunder and lightning: Treat this like you would rain and hail, and be prepared to pull over and stop if things get really hairy.  Your car is pretty well insulated, so it can take being struck by lightning, so stay in your car during a thunderstorm, even if you break down.

Tornadoes: These are unlikely, but you never know – they had a fatal tornado across the Tasman, so we might get a nasty one here.  Advice from the US suggests that you shouldn’t try to out-drive a tornado but you should get out of your car and get into a building as soon as possible.

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