Ruth Garcia is a winter-driving pro.
“I’m confident because I take my time,” she said. “You can’t drive the same speed you drive in the summer. If I get there early I have time for a cup of coffee.”
Garcia, the manager/lead instructor at Manny’s Drivers Education in Eagle River has worked in the driver’s education industry for nine years.
She’s quick to point out that there is such a thing as being over-confident.
“Ice is ice,” Garcia said. She notes: Four-wheel drive vehicles still end up on the side of the road.
Garcia cautions that accidents can happen for a variety of reasons, not just the weather. She cites poor vehicle maintenance, road conditions and other drivers.
“Don’t trust anybody,” Garcia said.
She shared the following winter driving strategies.
- Look 20-30 seconds ahead, about ¼ mile.
- Avoid the tire ruts that run down the middle of many Alaska roads. They’re uneven and fill with water that freezes over. Garcia compares driving with ruts on the road to riding a bicycle over railroad tracks. Drive parallel. When it is time to cross ruts, steer at a slight diagonal to maintain control.
- Call Alaska 511 or monitor local radio stations for weather and traffic updates.
- Don’t assume that the side of the road is flat. Snow can cover deep ditches. “Look for a safe place to pull over, like a driveway,” Garcia said.
- “Be gradual” and “keep it smooth.” Abrupt acceleration or braking can cause skidding.
- On ramps present more risk. “Merging onto the highway is quite a bit of distance. Use all of that (ramp space) to get over,” Garcia said.
- Garcia advises drivers to always carry a winter kit that includes flares, reflective blankets, food and water, jacket, gloves, hat, shovel, kitty litter or sand for traction, tow strap and entertainment materials in case of long waits in an emergency.
“If you are not comfortable nor confident in your driving – then don’t,” Garcia stressed. Stay home or find someone with more winter driving experience. Consider spending time practicing in an empty parking lot on a clear day.
A Mechanic’s Viewpoint
Ed Ackerman, service manager at S and P Certified Car Care in Eagle River, has lived in Alaska since 1973. A mechanic for over 30 years, Ackerman has noticed an increase in accidents, particularly along the Glenn Highway by Eagle River and Chugiak.
While the population has grown, Ackerman noted that vehicles have become safer with features like anti-lock brakes and traction control. “Our roads used to be way worse than they are now,” he added.
He has opinions about what’s contributing to the accidents.
“Stay off your dang phone,” he said. “Pay attention.”
Another component to safe winter driving is vehicle condition.
“Always start winter with fresh maintenance,” Ackerman said. He emphasized the importance of appropriate tires.
Studded tires can be used starting Sept.15 and are no longer legal after May 1. Blizzaks may also be a good option for four-wheel and all-wheel drive vehicles.
Lee Carpenter, owner/operator of Artic Express Towing & Recovery in Eagle River has been clearing accidents since 1986.
He’s frustrated by the many drivers who don’t slow down and move over when they see the flashing yellow lights of his tow trucks.
“It might not be convenient to change lanes,” Carpenter said. “It’s more convenient than a trip to the emergency room.”
Editor’s Note: Melinda Munson is a member of the ECHO News team and lives in Chugiak. She is the mother of six children – four of which have special needs. We appreciate her carving time out of her busy schedule to write for the ECHO News – especially this piece on winter driving considering the high number of vehicles in distress that the Anchorage Police Department has dealt with lately.