Ready or not, winter is on its way. As a long-haul truck driver, you are likely to encounter all types of conditions during a cross-country trip: snow, ice, sleet, wind, and bone-chilling cold. Any or all of these conditions can occur at the same time, compounding the ordinary hazards involved in driving a truck.
However, winter truck driving does not need to be extremely difficult. You can meet the challenge by taking steps to ensure that your truck is prepared and learn safety measures that can help prevent accidents and protect you in the event that you get stranded.
Prepare Your Truck
The best way to get ready for winter driving in a semi truck is to make sure that your vehicle is ready for cold weather before it strikes.
At best, driving in a cold cab is extremely uncomfortable. In some situations, it could even be dangerous. Check your heater to ensure that it is working properly so that you have time to get the necessary repairs if needed.
Visibility is crucial during the winter months. Be sure that the wiper fluid you use is a winter blend that will not freeze to your windshield. Otherwise, it will have the opposite of the intended effect and obscure your vision. At the same time, check that your wiper blades thoroughly clean your windshield and replace them if necessary.
It is no surprise to anyone that slick roads during the winter can cause accidents. Your braking system is your first line of defense. You should check all the component parts to make sure that they are in optimal condition. The power for the air brakes comes from the air contained in the primary and secondary tanks, which is pressurized by the air compressor. As the foundation of your braking system, the compressor should not be overlooked.
Electrical System and Battery
Nothing is more frustrating than trying to start your truck and encountering a dead battery. Power drains from a battery more quickly in cold weather. This is true regardless of whether the battery is large or small. Perform a load test on each battery and check its condition and age as well.
Stopping a large truck on slippery roads sometimes requires extra traction. Tire chains can provide it. Some state governments have recognized this and passed laws requiring chains under certain conditions. Learn how to apply the chains according to the manufacturer's instructions and keep them with you at all times. Remember that chains can damage tires and roads if used improperly, so be sure to take them off when they are no longer needed.
Blankets and Warm Clothing
Always carry extra blankets and/or a sleeping bag with you when driving in the winter. They can help prevent frostbite if you become stranded and the heater goes out. Check the cab for cold spots, sealing up drafts as necessary. Also make sure you have hats, gloves and a scarf with you to keep warm when you do have to venture outside.
A CB radio allows you to communicate with fellow truck drivers and learn about road conditions. Though it may seem like an outdated mode of communication, for a trucker it can be a lifesaver.
You should pack supplies that can help keep you safe if you get stranded in winter weather. Examples include an AM/FM radio, flashlight, extra batteries, first-aid kit, water, canned/dried food, flares, reflective vest, hand and feet warmers.
You should also pack supplies that may help you get back on the road again:
- Anti-gel fuel additives and extra fuel filters
- Heavy-duty tow straps
- Sand or salt
- Tool kit
In addition, you should inspect the belts, cooling system, hoses, and tires for signs of wear. It is not only before cold weather hits that you should do this, but prior to every winter trip.
Learn Safety Measures
Driving a truck requires that you pay close attention to the road any time of year, but winter weather means you're dealing with a unique set of road conditions. This winter, stay safe by keeping these truck driving considerations in mind when cold weather strikes.
Lower Your Speed and Increase Your Following Distance
When snow or freezing rain start to fall, every vehicle on the road is prone to slipping and sliding. How quickly can you react to out-of-control vehicles, ice slicks, snow pileups, and other road hazards?
In the winter, allowing for extra reaction time is essential. That means you'll need to lower your speed, increase your following distance, and add extra driving time to your schedule. Even if you're in perfect control of your truck, remember that the drivers around you might not have the winter driving knowledge that you do.
Understand How to Brake Effectively
Braking on slippery roads isn't the same as stopping on dry pavement. Do you know how to brake safely in winter conditions?
When you're driving in snow and ice, always brake as gently as possible to avoid skidding. Remember that anti-lock brakes can cause your truck to slide, but lightly pumping your brakes helps prevent you from losing control.
Watch for Black Ice
One of the most dangerous hazards you'll encounter on the road, black ice can appear out of nowhere. Do you know how to identify and avoid black ice?
When a road first starts to ice over, you might not realize that you're driving on a frozen surface. If the road looks wet but doesn't emit much spray, you're probably driving on black ice. Decrease your speed, stay alert, and get ready for slippery road conditions. Remember that other drivers might not notice the black ice, so leave plenty of space between you and the vehicle ahead.
Maintain Higher Fuel Levels
Winter storms can shut down roads, close gas stations, and compromise fuel supply. Do you have enough gas to reach your destination?
In optimal driving conditions, you can plan your route to the second, stopping at your favorite service stations or waiting until you're on empty. In the winter, however, you'll need to fuel up more often to make sure you're never at risk of running out of gas in the middle of a storm.
Double Check Your Gear
No trucker should leave home without a complete stash of winter driving gear. Have you loaded up your cab with extra clothes, food, and safety equipment?
Winter weather conditions can change quickly, so pack spare layers, a few pairs of gloves, and waterproof boots. Keep your truck running smoothly with extra windshield washer fluid and an ice scraper, and have sand, tire chains, and jumper cables handy in case of emergency. Have a flashlight and some spare batteries on hand in case you need to inspect tires or your trailer in low light. If you get stranded, you'll need to have nonperishable food and plenty of water with you.
Know When to Shut Off the Engine
As a truck driver, you're used to keeping a strict schedule and driving in challenging conditions. However, that doesn't mean you should always hit the road in the middle of a severe storm. Do you know when it's time to pull off, find a safe place to park, and shut down until the roads improve? Do you know if your trucking company has a policy that addresses winter weather conditions? Learning to communicate ahead of time may save drivers some headaches, but there are legal remedies as well.
Under the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (STAA), truck drivers do have the right to refuse to operate their commercial vehicle, free of employer repercussions, when there is fear of serious injury to driver or the public because of the unsafe driving conditions.
The Act, however, does not provide clear guidance on what consitutes an extreme hazard, so drivers who may refuse to drive in extremely hazardous weather are wise to fully document their rationale for stopping. It is essential to communicate in some written form with your dispatcher to create a record. Means of documentation to support your position may include:
- Photographs of weather conditions encountered, taken while you are stopped. Include any accidents or hazard conditions you witness.
- Reports of weather conditions from local news channels and the National Weather Service
- Screen images from your QualComm and any text message communications regarding your decision to stop
- Name, address and telephone information of any other drivers encountering the same decision to stop
With these simple tips and information, you will be driving through the winter with less stress and less danger. Nothing can guarantee 100% safety, but prepping your mind and your truck for snow, ice, and cold will help you get home safely.