Winter Driving Tips & Guidelines

During the last month while travelling with my co-worker Jessica for courses, we've talked about winter driving a couple of times because she’s getting prepared to trade in her Irish drivers license for a Canadian one! We discussed ways to get more experience, drivers training courses, horror stories and more. Taking your drivers exam can be hard enough, but doing it in winter can add extra challenges. And now that it has finally started snowing, I started thinking about our conversations and  some of the risks and challenges associated with winter driving. I was surprised to find out that according to Transportation Alberta IN 2014, “Slush, snow or ice was involved in 18.0% of fatal collisions and 23.9% of non-fatal injury collisions” Source: Transportation Alberta

Unfortunately not all incidents can be avoided, but being prepared can reduce the risks. Here are some simple tips and guidelines I’ve learned over the years. Feel free to share with your family, friends, co-workers and employees.

Make sure your vehicle is prepared for winter driving. Your vehicle checklist should include but not be limited to the following:

  • Get your car serviced. Make sure to have them check your battery, cooling system, brakes, lights, window defrosters, for leaks, worn out belts or hoses and other parts that may need repair or replacement.
  • Inspect your tires for sufficient tread and pressure; if you are able to, get winter tires.
  • Fill your windshield washer fluid with ‘no-freeze’ fluid.
  • Check to see if your windshield wipers need replacement.

For more information on how you can get your vehicle winter ready, talk to the technicians at your vehicle’s service centre and/or refer to advice from your roadside assistance provider (CAA, AMA, BCAA, etc).

Prepare an emergency car kit that includes winter safety and emergency equipment in your car. Your kit should include but not be limited to the following:

  • Sunglasses. When it’s sunny, glare from ice or wet roads can be blinding.
  • Fully charged cell phone and charger
  • Snow brush, ice scraper and small snow shovel
  • Extra warm clothing (coat, gloves, hat, boots, etc) and blankets
  • First aid kit
  • Booster cables, an extension cord & tow rope
  • Snacks that won’t spoil and bottles of water
  • Winter windshield washer fluid
  • Survival candles and lighter/matches, wind up flash light & road flares
  • Bag of salt/sand/cat litter for traction

Steps to take before heading out on the road:

  • Ask yourself: “Is the journey absolutely necessary?” The safest strategy is to avoid driving in bad weather conditions. If you must drive, check weather and travel conditions before heading out; plan to leave early if necessary.
  • Let someone know your destination, planned route and expected time of arrival.
  • Clean all snow and ice off of the hood, roof, windows and lights.
  • Keep the gas tank topped up – at least half full. When driving in bad weather plan ahead and make sure you have more than enough fuel.
  • As much as possible use main roads which are generally cleared first and well-maintained.

Tips for Winter Driving:

  • Remember to always wear your seat belt. Ensure that everyone in your vehicle is buckled up as well.
  • Do not text or engage in any other activities that may distract you while driving.
  • Be alert, well rested and sober behind the wheel
  • Slow down; leave plenty of distance between vehicles. Fog, black ice, slush or snow-covered roads can make driving dangerous. Drive for the conditions, not the speed limit.

What to do if you are stuck in the snow and/or breakdown during winter weather:

  • Try to stay calm and try not to go out in the cold. If your vehicle is not at risk of being hit by other drivers, stay in your car: you will avoid getting lost and your car is a safe shelter.
  • If you have to leave your vehicle, wear high-visibility clothing so other road users can see you.
  • Don't tire yourself out. Shovelling or pushing in the bitter cold can kill.
  • Let in fresh air by opening a window on the side sheltered from the wind.
  • Keep the engine off as much as possible. Be aware of carbon monoxide poisoning and make sure the tailpipe is not blocked by snow. If possible, use a survival candle for heat instead of the car heater to warm up.
  • Turn on warning lights or set up road flares to make your car visible. Turn on your dome light; overuse of your headlights will drain the battery.
  • Stay awake; Move your hands, feet and arms to maintain circulation.
  • Keep an eye out for other cars and emergency responders.
  • Try to keep clothing dry since wet clothing can lead to a dangerous loss of body heat. Wear a hat since you can lose up to 60% of your body heat through your head.

Humanity at its finest

When the floods hit southern Alberta June 2013, my son sent a text “Sure glad our house is on a hill…and mom, how are we going to help?”  I text back “You work and send money son; I will go to Calgary and help.”

I wanted to help at the Stampede Grounds.  My son makes a living in Rodeo and the Stampede brings around 300 million dollars a year to the Calgary economy.  The saying “the Stampede will go on come hell or high water” took root and people got to work! The Calgary Stampede association hired equipment and people to work and pump water 24/7. They also utilized the volunteers who were already signed up to work at the stampede to lessen the toll on the volunteer pool that was needed to help the residents in need.  Within a few short days they were putting up the giant Ferris wheel!

I found YYC Helps and headed over to the Bowness Community Association Monday afternoon in my rubber boots, windows down in the truck wind blown hair and grubby clothes.  I walked in the office and said “YYC Helps says you have volunteer opportunities for me.”  Christina looks into my eyes and says, “You come back tomorrow morning and answer the phones in this office.” I walked out laughing and text my girlfriend, “Do I have telephones tattooed on my forehead?”  I thought I was grubby enough they’d send me to do some manual labor somewhere!

Michelle Dice, the Executive director had the clean-up running like a well-oiled machine.  As residents called in their requests for help, we dispatched the requested number of volunteers who were willing and able to fulfill the request. The Bowness Community Association complex was full of food, cleaning supplies, paramedics, EMT’s, EMR’s, firemen, City of Calgary flood relief personnel and a host of volunteers.  The police were in and out suggesting we send people in car pools, not each in their own vehicle; the number of vehicles were creating congestion issues and slowing down the movement of essential service personnel like sewer fixers, power fixers and garbage removal trucks.

During my time volunteering, over and over I was reminded of the value of answering the phone.  It adds dignity, elegance, compassion and assurance in the face of a disaster.

I also volunteered at Siksika Nation and in High River. While there I witnessed people working very hard to help others pick up the pieces of their lives and get moving forward again; humanity at its finest!


The Human Touch

In June 2013 the rains came, the rivers rose and kept rising.  Based on my interpretation of what I heard on the news the headwaters of Cougar Creek, the Elbow River, the Sheep River, the Highwood River, and the Kananaskis River which all empty into the Bow River, were in the eye of the storm.  

To view an image of the Bow River Basin click here.

My first job out of NAIT, was in Hydrology, right next to our neighbors River Engineering. We were jointly responsible for flood forecasting in 1974.  We had a “computer” (a funny looking gadget that sat by the facsimile machine) and a word processor.  That summer I was introduced to 100 year floods, a “Model” for prediction of inches of rainfall = runoff = rising rivers. 

I remember having telephones, rain gauges, passion and dedication.  The boys over in River Engineering had a “river engineering model” they used calculate runoff and predict flow rates.  Based on this information they said the river will peak at this time at this elevation.  They needed accurate rainfall measurements.  They had an adjustment for extra snow melt with the rainfall that they had previously built into the model basin acres at each elevation.

One of my jobs was to call the people who had weather stations every hour.  I got updated reports on how many inches of water their rain gauge measure since we had last spoke. I then passed that information along to the engineer utilizing the “Model”. I also took my turn receiving inbound calls and reporting our calculations to Alberta Disaster Services every hour.

The Oldman river system flooded the summer of 1974. I’ll never forget the lady who said “It is rainin’ BUCKETS, I can’t even empty that gauge quick enough - every 15 minutes isn’t quick enough!”  Another lady said “It’s just rainin’ cats and dogs.”  Their voices set off a sense of urgency.  The human touch was alive and well.

I was part of a team that was pretty pleased we had predicted (with accuracy) the time and height of the flood to hit Lethbridge within a couple hours and within a couple inches. I remember the guys telling the engineer who had built the “Model” not to get a swelled head because it was pretty simple to calculate potential runoff when water hit rock.  I was young and naïve back then but I was pretty impressed with our accuracy. 

I think in the 2013 storm, the river levels, the timing of the arrival and quantity of water in Medicine Hat was very accurate.  Sitting back and looking at the differences between 1974 to today, I ask if we’ve automated ourselves out of “urgency”?

I have family that has farmed land in a bend on the Peace River at Carcajou and it is a flood plain.  To get there, there is an ice bridge at Tompkins landing and in my lifetime that flood plain has been under water a few times caused by ice jams.  After every flood, my uncle who loved the river, rebuilt on a little higher ground.  In one way, he benefited from the flood because the silt left after the waters receded brought new nutrients and replenished his soil.  Although there were some years he had no crop, because it took the water so long to go away.  I learned a bit about floods.  When the level of the river drops, the water doesn’t always go away.  Every time it flooded the water got trapped and stayed, requiring a newly engineered drainage system and time.  The water seldom goes away as fast as it comes.  The last time I was home during a flood we moved 20,000 bushels of grain in 3 days.  We had to shovel the bottoms of the bins out by hand.  Every time a truck was full we’d go outside of the bin for a break and see the stick we’d stuck in the edge of the water submerged and the water another foot higher on the flat.  The fast rising waters renewed our resolve to keep on shoveling. Ice jams present a different kind of river engineering challenge.

When the floods hit southern Alberta, June 2013, my son sent a text “Sure glad our house is on a hill…and mom, how are we going to help?”  I text back “You work and send money son; I will go to Calgary and help.”