Life in the slow lane

Tips for driving in the snow that could save your life

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

With Reno having an average annual snowfall of two feet, getting there isn’t always half the fun.

Last December, the jet stream pushed a series of five storms through area. For the Nevada Highway Patrol, the snow and 50-mph winds translated to 47 more crashes and 569 more motorist assists than in the previous, relatively dry month of November. Plus, there were three fatal crashes in the Reno district.

The earliest snows may well be the most dangerous.

“It’s educational for everyone,” says Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Chuck Allen.

When the snow season begins, drivers have yet to adjust their mental clockwork, allowing more time to reach their destinations, more time to brake. This makes it a busy season for accidents, even for SUVs.

“Typically, we see more accidents—though fewer injury-related accidents—with SUVs,” says Allen. “People have the mindset they can handle any road condition. They get into trouble when they have to negotiate a curve or brake. A four-wheel-drive doesn’t stop any better than a two-wheel-drive vehicle.”

Allen’s advice: Take the slow lane, especially on roads without physical dividers. The extra second or two of reaction time can be critical to avoid a direct hit. It’s also a good way to avoid a head-on with a drunk driver. Drivers who cross over the legal-limit line often cross over the line dividing opposing traffic, too.

Mount Rose Highway is flagged as one of the highest crash zones of the season. But mountain-goers have more to watch out for than the road ahead.

“Mount Rose is a high ski area. The base is around 8,200 feet. You’re skiing in thinner air than you are accustomed to working and living in. It can take some of the drive out of you. It can make you tired,” says Allen. “Driving home, you turn your heater on. Your body is already exhausted from a fun day on the mountain, and you may not be aware that you’re falling asleep.

“Crack a window open and have a cup of coffee with you, or at least a friend or passenger to help you stay awake.”

It’s safer to store equipment such as skis on the roof rack. Inside the car, they can turn into projectiles in the event of an accident, causing further injuries.

Work-week commuters are at highest risk for accidents. Forty-two percent of crashes occur Monday through Friday between 6-8 a.m. and 4-7 p.m.

“Keep in mind that although the roadway may appear to be dry, overpasses and bridges can have a layer of ice on them,” warns Allen.

If you need to chain up on the highway, it’s safer to exit and pull over on the shoulder of the next onramp, where traffic is approaching at a much slower speed. There have been chaining-up fatalities.

When driving on snow or ice, drivers should also keep at least a quarter-tank of gas in their cars, Allen advises. If you’re broken down on the side of the road, you may need the fuel to keep your car running and warm. Tow truck response time can be several hours when roads are hazardous.

Common sense goes a long way on the roadway. So does taking your time and keeping your distance.