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10 things to remember if you're trapped in a whiteout

For most of us, winter has been easy so far. But that doesn't mean it's over. Someday we will get a blast of it, and it'll come without warning.
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Old Man Winter may have taken time off to harass the beleaguered folks of Europe with more winter than they can handle. But that doesn’t mean he has forgotten about us here in the Great White North just yet.

Even being optimistic about this weird winter, someday we are still going to get a deadly taste of it — and it’ll more than likely take many by surprise.

Just a couple of weekends ago, I found myself in the midst of a serious whiteout coming back from our winter driving school and ice racing in Minden, Ontario.

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We had just turned off Hwy. 35 south and on to Hwy. 48 westbound at Coboconk when we drove right into the teeth of a very nasty whiteout. It was dark and the winds were whipping up a very intense blizzard.

Our mini-convoy included my brother and two other instructors in his car followed by myself and my daughter in my car. Both vehicles equipped with quality winter tires of course.

We came up behind another vehicle travelling very slowly. This minivan was almost at a crawl and obviously the driver was very uncomfortable driving in these conditions. They appeared to prefer us to lead, and with our experience in winter driving, we also thought the minivan driver would like to have another vehicle lead the way.

When conditions allowed, we passed with great caution but only when visibility allowed them to pull right and for us to pass safely. They followed in behind us and we drove with extreme caution through the whiteout.

Visibility for the most part was as little as five metres and just enough to see tail lights in front of us. As we made our way along Hwy. 48 at a very slow pace of about 20 km/h, it was almost impossible to see where the road actually was. Snow and ice were building up on the windshield around the wiper blade path.

It was a slow and intensely challenging drive, but we made it through. Now here are some tips if you encounter the same conditions.

1. During the daytime, whiteout conditions can be spotted from a distance when you practise good vision techniques of looking farther up the road. When you see vehicles disappearing into a whiteout, pull over in a safe place before you enter those conditions and wait it out. Look for a driveway or entrance to get you off the road as far as possible. Stopping on the shoulder can be dangerous if the whiteout conceals your vehicle from others.

2. After dark, you can often encounter a whiteout before it can be spotted from a distance as happened to us. Where possible, find a driveway or entrance to a service station and pull off the road to wait for the conditions to clear.

3. If you are forced to continue as we were, slow down so you do not over drive your vision limit. In other words, if you can only see 20 metres ahead, your speed should allow you to stop within that 20 metres should you encounter anything that forces you to stop. Keep in mind that braking distances will be about 10 times longer on snow and ice compared to asphalt and that vehicles equipped with ABS take longer to stop in those conditions compared to the same vehicle without ABS.

4. A common occurrence in whiteouts and heavy fog is drivers speeding up in these limited visibility conditions. This tends to happen because your brain loses any reference to motion and speed in a whiteout. It believes you are at a stop and as such drivers tend to depress the gas pedal more. Watch for this common mistake.

5. Keep your side windows clear or open slightly so you can make out the edge of the road. Using your peripheral vision or with quick glances to the side, you can often pick up snow banks or changes in the road surface that can keep you on the road and close to staying in your lane.

6. If there is a vehicle in front of you, use them as a reference only. Drivers in front of you may miss a curve or become disoriented and blindly following them may cause you to make the same mistake they do. Try to not stare at the vehicle in front but keep your vision moving from side to side and ahead so you can look for the side of the road also.

7. Even in day light, be sure your full lighting system is on, head lights and tail lights, not just your Daytime Running Lights (DRL). If you have fog lights, now is the time to use them. These can help light up the side of the road and help you see snow banks, etc. This is the only time I have ever used my fog lights. Please turn them off at night when you are driving on unlit roads when the weather is clear.

8. Do not let anything distract you from processing all the important driving information you need to stay on the road and stay safe.

9. Be smooth with all your steering inputs if you need to adjust your direction of travel. It will be very slippery and being abrupt with the steering can put you into a spin or in the ditch.

10. Keep your vehicle’s windows clear of fog or frost by turning on the air conditioner with the heater and defroster to the maximum if required. Being able to see out your windows is vital to getting to your destination safely.

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