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Novice or not, take caution driving in winter weather

Wednesday - 1/29/2014, 4:08pm  ET

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Don't take chances when it comes to winter weather driving. (WTOP file)

WASHINGTON - Whether a seasoned winter weather road warrior or a novice to driving on ice and snow, road safety experts want everyone to know a few things about winter driving.

When the snow flies visibility can drop and the freezing temperatures can cause batteries to fail. But what really matters is where the rubber meets the road.

Keith Compton, Chief of the Division of Highway Services in Montgomery County says "the grip factor" makes or breaks a snowy commute.

Statistics released by the American Highway Users Alliance makes that clear; the ability to maintain contact with the road is critical. That's more important than visibility, precipitation intensity and wind speed according to the group.

The AHUA also says the use of road salt reduces crashes by 85 percent. An improvement in "surface friction" of just 10 percent can result in a 20 percent reduction in collisions.

Those statistics point to the value of a city or state's ability to keep the roads clear when a storm hits. But what can drivers do to improve their commutes and relieve that white-knuckle sensation of slipping and sliding?

Compton advises checking tires. The veteran Montgomery County roadway clearer says there's a trend of some drivers to go for smaller, faster cars with slick tires that don't allow a car to maintain contact with the road surface. As a result, those drivers are ending up in crashes "up against curbs, and they're creating havoc for the other commuters--it's a real safety issue."

Emergency crews also see continued problems, many of them related to driver behavior according to Ian Weston, Executive Director of the American Trauma Society and a volunteer firefighter in Arlington, Va.

Weston says it's critical for drivers to give emergency vehicles plenty of room. Too many drivers, he says, assume emergency vehicles like ambulances are better in snow than standard passenger cars.

"In fact, they are not," says Weston.

"They are much more difficult to handle in poor weather conditions."

He suggests drivers give emergency crews 10 seconds of following space in poor conditions and to get off the road if seen in the rear-view mirror. Like any other, emergency vehicles need increased stopping distance in snow and rain. When responding to calls, the distance needed to stop if when slamming on the brakes is even greater.

Another big problem during snow and ice storms is so-called "secondary crashes." That's where a motorist has a collision, then gets out of the car and is struck by another driver by the side of the road.

"Passengers who get out of their cars are being seriously injured," when they're struck by passing motorists says Weston.

John Townsend, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, says along with the crews that clear the roadways before and during storms, driver behavior can play a major role in making sure everyone gets home safely.

"Even if you can drive well in the snow," Townsend says, "remember, not everyone else can."

Weston says despite a number of public education campaigns, drivers who insist on texting while driving continue to add to the danger of negotiating snowy and icy roadways.

"During inclement weather you have to be 100 percent attuned to your surroundings -- road conditions, weather conditions," when you have a cell phone in your hand, your driving performance suffers.

Having a phone in hand while driving he says, "is the most dangerous thing you can do."

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report.

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