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How to survive the dreaded whiteout

Published January 30, 2013
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Friday, January 25th was more than another Robbie Burns day. For many motorists on the 401 near Newcastle it was a “crash and burn” day.

The OPP reported up to 70 vehicles were involved in a collision on the Westbound 401 around 3 p.m. that afternoon. According to Global News, motorists reported a light snow changing quickly to a whiteout.

A story in the Toronto Star reported those involved said it all started when a transport truck lost control and jack knifed across the highway. OPP Staff Sgt. Rob Kobayashi was quoted in the article as saying, “This is the largest collision I have seen in over 21 years of police service.”

More: Do you really need to be out on the road during a storm?

More: Why do drivers still drive like this in winter?

Luckily no one was killed and there were only a few serious injuries. From the look of the carnage it could have been a lot worse.

Some people blame the weather saying the whiteouts made it impossible to see. But is it really the weather’s fault?

Tom Reynolds of The Weather Network told me that there was “a warning issued for snow squalls east of Toronto.” The weather reports I heard all stated that “lake effect snow along the north shore of Lake Ontario will likely cause snow squalls and whiteouts.” Even the OPP had warned drivers to avoid driving on those roads.

So was the weather really to blame for this pile-up?

In a word, No!

The blame lies squarely with the motorist and truckers. OPP Constable Linda Wolf stated it the way I have always said it should be. “Yes, weather will play a factor, however, we can’t blame the weather for the crash. It’s obviously drivers’ reactions in weather conditions of that nature that led to the crash”.

Weather conditions did not crash these vehicles. Ice, whiteouts, snow and even the dreaded “black” ice do not crash vehicles. It is the drivers’ reaction to these conditions that crash the vehicles.

We all know that winter dishes up some very severe driving conditions. When meteorologists and the police are warning motorists of areas where dangerous conditions are likely to occur, some common sense has to come into play. This system didn’t sneak in the back door. We were warned of what was to come and the predictions proved quite accurate. Unless someone had their head buried in a snow bank somewhere, the warnings were out there for all to heed.

This situation developed in mid-afternoon when there was still enough daylight to see whiteouts up ahead. Some witnesses said it came out of nowhere. In these conditions with proper vision technique, whiteouts can be seen before you drive into them.

So how do we avoid becoming the latest TV news video winter car-crash star?

1. Before heading out on a trip check your local weather and road conditions and those along your route. TV stations such as The Weather Network, CP24, etc. have up-to-date fairly accurate forecasts and road condition segments. They also have online reports that you can access by computer. Some vehicles will give the driver up-to-the-minute forecasts on their dash mounted computer screens. Smart phones and other electronic devices also provide access to updated weather forecasts. The information is there, so use it. When in doubt, don’t go out!

2. Plan your route for changes. If there are weather warnings along your route as there was on the 401 Friday, plan to delay your trip until the weather clears or take another route that steers you clear of treacherous conditions.

3. When you encounter snowfall while driving, slow down! When road conditions deteriorate, your speed needs to decrease. Plain and simple – regardless of what type of vehicle you drive. This includes transport truck drivers, pick-up truck and SUV drivers who should also slow down. I have encountered conditions of poor driving on the 401 and watched in horror as transport truck after transport truck would whiz by at speeds unsafe for the conditions. Just because you feel you can drive that fast doesn’t mean it is safe to do so. My favourite saying is, “Anyone can drive fast. Smart drivers know when not to.”

4. Keep your vision farther up the road. Do not stare at the vehicle in front of you. When you see vehicles disappearing into heavy snow or a whiteout, do not follow them into it. Stop in a safe place as far from the live lanes as possible until it clears.

5. Be smooth with all of your controls. Keep two hands on the steering wheel in the 9 and 3 o’clock position and do not over-correct. Most steering corrections for skids and slides can be done without taking your hands off the wheel in this 9 and 3 position. Don’t “jerk” the steering wheel, be smooth.

6. Look to where you want to go. You will drive where you are looking. Therefore, do not look at other crashed or spinning vehicles or you will drive towards them. Look to your escape route. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, so it takes coaching and practice.

7. If you must stop in a whiteout do not stop on the road or someone will drive into the rear of your vehicle. Stop in a safe place off the road. Even the ditch is safer than stopping on the road surface.

8. If you have to get out of your vehicle, do not stand on or near the roadway. Get as far away as possible from the travelled portion of the road. Motorists have been struck by vehicles while standing on or near the roadway.

9. In limited visibility, always turn on your full lighting system. Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) do not illuminate your tail lights or your full headlights. You need to be seen by all other vehicles.

10. It is not uncommon for drivers to subconsciously speed up in whiteout or heavy fog conditions. This is due to the fact that your brain has lost its reference to speed by sensing passing objects (trees, poles, guardrails, etc.) that give your brain a sense of speed. Your brain can be tricked by this lack of input into thinking you are at rest and will tend to make you speed up. Watch for this phenomenon occurring in whiteout conditions.

Did I mention slow down?

This 70 vehicle pile-up was indeed a traumatic event for those involved. It was lucky no one was killed and we feel for those seriously injured.

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