By Sinay Butler, Counselor Dragonfly Wellness & Education Center
Even for experienced winter drivers, there can be a degree of anxiety about driving on winter roads. The road conditions are unpredictable and ever-changing and a wise driver approaches every trip with a degree of respect and awareness as to the potential dangers. Recently, our area has had a large influx of new community members who are unfamiliar with winter driving. While driving in winter is often dangerous, there are certain ways we can prepare mentally and physically if we find ourselves in alarming conditions.
It is important to mentally prepare before venturing out on winter roads. An attitude of respect for the danger, coupled with confidence that comes from being prepared can help control the anxiety that is natural in uncertain conditions. Practicing deep breathing while driving will help your body relax. Take a few minutes to breath in through your nose for the count of four, hold the breath for the count of four, and then exhale while countng to four. This will help set your brain in a better state to respond more effectively to surprises. It also helps us to remain present while driving and not allow distractions to grab our attention.
Being prepared includes taking care of maintenance on your automobile. The National Safety Council recommends annual maintenance such as testing the battery, antifreeze level, tires, and wiper blades. It is also important in the winter to keep gas tanks at least half full. This may not make sense if you’re used to having easy access to gas stations and services. But if you find yourself stranded during the winter in Stevens County, you will need fuel in your tank to run your vehicle off and on in order to stay warm. Running out of gas could have dire consequences. If your exhaust is obstructed by snow, it is also important to have other ways to stay warm, such as wool blankets.
Any Northerner will tell you to have an emergency survival kit in your vehicle. If you get stranded, this includes the blankets you will need to stay warm. Hypothermia is a deadly condition that can occur within minutes of exposure to cold winter temperatures. You cannot rely on help arriving in a timely manner. There may be a limited number of tow trucks available, and if road conditions are treacherous, there may be several drivers in need of assistance at the same time, which will delay your help. It is common for travelers over the passes to be delayed for several hours as roads are cleared due to snow or accidents.
It is important to have an emergency roadside kit in your vehicle at all times with jumper cables, basic tools, a fire extinguisher, and basic first aid kit. Pre-assembled kits are available for sale online and in stores. A supply of blankets, mittens, boots, and hats should also be accessible in your vehicle. Keep a flashlight with extra batteries as well as a snow brush and ice scraper to clear windows. Cell phones should be kept charged. Having easy-to-access food such as raisins, trail mix, and food bars as well as bottled water will be helpful if you are stuck in your car for an extended period of time. It also helps develop a sense of security for the driver and your passengers. Many people carry a bag of kitty litter and a small foldable shovel. When you slide off the road and lose traction, the kitty litter can be used on the snow to provide traction.
Learning how your vehicle responds on the ice is also very important. Going to an empty parking lot and practicing braking and making turns will help you become more familiar with your vehicle and your ability to maneuver on ice. It might also be helpful to simply ask experienced drivers for winter driving tips. People who grew up in the North have a wealth of experience in navigating bad roads and are happy to share. This is a great way to build community. The best and most valuable advice is simply to slow down. Even experienced drivers can become over-confident and drive too fast, and end up in a ditch.
When you first get on the road, get a feel for the road conditions. Turn and brake slowly and gently. If you go into a skid, steer gently into the direction of the slide. Expect a second slide as the vehicle straightens out and be prepared to turn gently into that slide. Smooth and calm responses are a defense against losing control of the vehicle. If a road is icy, braking can cause loss of steering control. Take your foot off the gas and steer as straight as possible, without using the brake, until the car slows to a safer speed.
Going off the road is scary. It is doubtful that there is an experienced Northern driver that hasn’t gone off the road or gotten stuck on ice at some point in their life. By preparing your vehicle and having a survival kit in your car, and by preparing your mental state to stay present while driving, you can help manage your anxiety about driving in winter. More information regarding safe winter driving is available on many websites like the clear and concise information sheet available at www.dps.mn.gov. Dragonfly Wellness and Education Center is dedicated to wellness and education regarding preparedness and many other subjects. Sinay Butler can be reached at 509-724-0221.