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Winter driving: prepare, plan, and slow down

With the arrival of winter, the Washington State Patrol (WSP) and the Washington Dept. of Transportation (WSDOT) are reminding drivers that winter driving takes a different mindset and set of skills.

If you plan on traveling during the winter, especially over the mountain passes, it pays to be prepared for the unexpected. Getting stranded during a winter storm can be a matter of life and death.

Officer Lt. Steve McCulley of the WSP wants people to think about their trip before they leave.

``We like to remind motorists is that if the weather and road conditions on the mountain passes is poor, take the time to re-evaluate your travel plans and only travel in these conditions if absolutely necessary,'' he said.

State agencies want to encourage drivers to slow down and drive according to road and weather conditions. Posted speed limits are for dry pavement.

Winter driving techniques

? Clear snow and ice from all windows and lights, even the hood and roof, before driving.

? Leave plenty of room for stopping and brake early. It takes more time to stop when roads are wet or icy.

? Know current road conditions: call 511 for traveler information or check weather and traffic information at www.wsdot.wa.gov. or local news reports.

? Leave room for maintenance vehicles and plows - stay at least 15 car lengths (200 feet) back and do not pass on the right.

? Watch for icy surfaces on bridges. Bridge decks will ice up first.

? Look farther ahead in traffic. Actions by other drivers will alert you to problems and give you extra seconds to react.

? Trucks take longer to stop, so don't cut in front of them.

? Don't use your cruise control or overdrive when it's freezing (or colder). Even roads that appear clear can have isolated slippery spots and even a light touch of your brakes to deactivate cruise control can cause you to lose control of your vehicle. With overdrive, as you encounter a hill your vehicle automatically accelerates or downshifts, which can cause loss of traction.

? Don't get overconfident with four-wheel drive. Four-wheel drive helps you get going quicker but it won't help you stop any faster.

? Don't pump anti-lock brakes. If your car is equipped with anti-lock brakes, the right way is to ``stomp and steer.''

? Drive with headlights on.

? Allow extra time. Give yourself extra time to reach your destination when roads may be slick.

Prepare your vehicle

It is important to know your vehicle. Read your owners manual. Keep your vehicle in top operating condition all year round -- for safety and fuel economy -- it is especially important to get it winterized to avoid dangerous situations while traveling in frigid weather.

Tires and chains

Studded tires became legal on Nov. 1 and can remain until March 31. Fit your chains before you need them.

Road and weather conditions vary significantly throughout our state. Since different types of winter tires perform best under different road conditions, your local tire dealer can help you select the best option.

Approved traction tires have at least an eighth of an inch of tread and are labeled ``Mud and Snow,'' ``M+S,'' ``MS,'' ``All Season,'' or have a ``Mountain/Snowflake,'' symbol. These tires can be used year round. Studded tires are approved traction tires but are only legal between November 1 and March 31.

Tire chains come in many varieties such as cross link, cable chains, and plastic or nylon chains. All are permissible for passenger vehicles when ``chains required'' signs are posted. Minimum chain requirements for commercial vehicles can be found at Washington State Patrol's Commercial Vehicle Division Web site: www.wsp.wa.gov/traveler/.

Traction advisories

Road signs let drivers know the legal requirements on roadways.

? Chains required on all vehicles -- except all-wheel drive. In extreme weather conditions, the WSP will require all vehicles (except all-wheel drive) to install tire chains.

However, the WSP can require chains on all-wheel drive vehicles too.

Snow and ice removal

WSDOT maintenance crews are ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week to prevent or remove snow and ice from highways. WSDOT takes a two-step approach to keeping roads safe during winter weather. The first is to prevent ice by applying anti-icing compounds. Second, trucks plow snow and apply sand and a de-icer. Snow is removed first from the most heavily traveled routes, then directed to locations where drivers are most vulnerable: hills, curves, ramps, bridges and interchanges.

Avalanche hazards

Heavy snowfall in the mountains followed by rain or warm weather can increase avalanche hazards.

Snoqualmie (I-90) and Stevens (U.S. 2) passes are two areas that require avalanche control work.

WSDOT avalanche control technicians use explosives to set off controlled avalanches to help keep drivers safe.

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For more information and links to weather and road conditions check the WSDOT Web site at www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/.

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