By Starrla Cray
Ah, winter driving.
An engine that sounds like it’s in pain, a windshield that’s encased in ice, and roads that could pass for a skating rink.
In Minnesota, hazardous driving conditions come with the territory.
“First snowfall, people forget how to drive again,” Shane Farniok, service advisor/technician at Absolute Automotive Inc. in Delano, said. “They are driving while on the phone and taking corners too fast. Everybody’s in a hurry to go nowhere.”
“People think their four-wheel drives are indestructible,” Jeremy Greiner, owner of Big Tyme Collision Center in Dassel, said. “I’ve pulled people out of the ditch who have passed me while I was driving the tow truck.”
One winter, while Greiner was at an accident scene with the tow truck, four or five cars ended up in the same ditch. “People are driving too fast,” he said. “When they see flashing lights, they hit their brakes. It gets scary out there.”
Wayne Hasz, driver’s training instructor at Lester Prairie High School tells his students to touch the brakes a few times to see if there’s traction. But road conditions can vary greatly in different spots of the road, so “you just have to be really careful, at any age.”
“Keep distance. Slow down,” advised Jeremy Greiner’s father, Ron Greiner, owner of Big Tyme Towing in Dassel. “If you don’t need to be out, don’t go.” Staying far enough away from stopped vehicles on the road is especially important, he said.
“A couple of times, I just about lost my life,” Greiner said. He recalled a time when he was almost hit by a pickup truck. The man was talking on his cell phone and not paying attention to the road.
“I was ready to slide underneath the tow truck,” Greiner said.
One year, Greiner was pulling out two vehicles that went down a 150-foot embankment in Kingston. “We recovered the second vehicle, the one that was at fault, and here, the guy was watching a movie while driving,” Greiner said. “They were lucky there were no injuries, but it could have gone the other way.”
A lot of winter driving boils down to “common sense,” he said. “It’s a privilege to have a license; don’t abuse it.”
“Keep your vehicle in good working order and you won’t have problems,” Al Cafferty, owner of Bryan’s Service Station in Winsted, advised. “And always keep at least a quarter- tank of gas.”
Good tires are also crucial in the winter, Farniok said.
“We did a lot of tires in the past couple of weeks,” he said. “Bad tires can lead to going in the ditch and spinouts.”
“Sometimes two-thirds of the tire tread is already worn off,” Ron Greiner said.
Another common mistake is failing to understand the car’s braking system, Gail Weinholzer, director of public affairs, AAA Minnesota/Iowa, said. “Know if you have regular or anti-lock brakes.”
Knowing the difference between rear- and front-wheel drive vehicles is equally important, she said.
About 15 years ago, Weinholzer said she switched from a front-wheel to rear-wheel drive vehicle. “When the first snowfall came, it handled very differently.”
“The first winter, I put myself up on a low center median,” she said. “A couple of gentlemen stopped and helped me out. It was probably more embarrassing than anything.”
When Hasz is helping students first learn to drive, he sometimes has them practice in a parking lot. “Sometimes they have a hard time making turns in the parking lot, let alone on an icy road with other cars.”
“You can lose control of the car very quickly,” Hasz said. “Be aware of what’s going on around you.”
According to the Federal Highway Administration, more than 1,300 people are killed and more than 116,800 people are injured in vehicle crashes on snowy, slushy, or icy pavement every year in the US.
“When you see a vehicle in the ditch, it’s telling you something,” Ron Greiner said. Recently, Greiner assisted a man who turned sharply to miss a deer and ended up in a field. “It tore the wheels right off and the air bags deployed,” he said.
Greiner said it is usually better to hit a deer than swerve to avoid it. “Hit your brakes; hit the deer,” Greiner advised. “It will do less damage.”
Careful driving and proper vehicle maintenance could help lessen accidents, Cafferty said.
“If you do the maintenance, it will save you problems down the road,” he said. Change the car’s oil, check the battery, alternator, and starter, Cafferty recommended. However, even the most conscientious driver can face unexpected problems.
“Everybody’s human, and things can happen,” Hasz said.
“There’s nothing like watching someone else spin to make you drive more carefully,” Weinholzer added.