Have a safe, smart commute this winter, say U.S. Army in Europe safety officials

By U.S. Army Europe Public Affairs
Oct. 20, 2010

HEIDELBERG, Germany -- Europe’s roadways are covered with fog, sleet, snow and ice in winter, making the season a challenging one for drivers who lack road experience in Europe or are new to a wintry environment.

As freezing temperatures approach, they bring the dangers of slippery roads and limited visibility, hampering daily commutes and holiday trips.

“My advice to a first time driver in Europe – Don’t get in the car and plan a long trip somewhere without first getting out there and getting some experience,” said Dave Scott, U.S. Army in Europe chief of safety.

The suggestion isn’t only for first timers in Europe. Messy weather, such as ice-slick and    snow-strewn roads, can make the most experienced drivers seem inexperienced, said Scott.

He said the most common accidents in winter are collisions and skidding off the road, and that the causes are usually following too closely and driving too fast for weather conditions. 

Some people think that “following too closely” means “tailgating”, not so, said Scott.  He added that stopping distances can be up to 18 times longer than on a dry road, so rear-ending someone can result from brakes applied a long way away. 

“A good starting point is at least five seconds of time between you and the vehicle in front, and increase the distance as things deteriorate,” he said. 

To lessen the risk of becoming another statistic, Scott offers a few winter driving tips. 

“Clear all of your windows and mirrors to see and avoid others. Steer gently to maintain control of a vehicle on icy patches of road,” he said. Anticipate icy roads in the morning, “Especially if there has been some fog over night,” he added.

“In the Alps and higher regions you will encounter areas where tire chains are required,” said Scott. “If you like to go skiing, it’s a good idea to have chains and practice putting them on.”  Watch for the blue snow tire chain sign and other advisories that make chains mandatory in those regions.

Similarly, drivers may require tire chains if signs are posted when traveling on mountain roads in northern regions of Italy, where sweeping winds can drop temperatures of nearby towns to below freezing, said Christopher D. Sheets, U.S. Army Garrison Vicenza safety manager. 

Though Italy does not receive much snow in winter, the threat of black ice exists, just as does in many European countries.

Black ice is a very thin sheet of ice that covers the road surface. The source can be almost anything: snow-melt from the previous day, moisture in the air during the early morning hours or even exhaust from idling vehicles at an intersection, Scott said.

“The biggest challenge with black ice is you don’t notice it until it’s too late,” he said.

If you encounter black ice and begin to skid, Scott recommends easing off the accelerator and steering into the direction of the skid.

Another winter driving challenge is low visibility, something drivers in the Benelux experience, according to Rudy R. Magain, safety manager for USAG Benelux.

“Dense fog is common in the Benelux area this time of year,” he warned. “In the early morning and our way home from work, there is potential for accidents. I would ask people to make sure their cars lights are working well,” he said.

The USAREUR safety chief advises those who are not mechanically inclined to let professionals inspect their vehicle for winter driving before the weather gets bad.   “Many garages offer a free winter service check,” Scott said. 

Here are more tips provided by the USAREUR Safety Office to help you stay safe this winter:

  • All lights are in good working order.
  • Brakes properly adjusted.
  • Battery charging properly and battery terminals are clean and tight.
  • Be sure all fluids are at proper levels, including anti-freeze at the right level and concentration
  • Make sure windshield wiper blades are cleaning properly.

In addition to required equipment, here’s a check-list of winter items to have in your vehicle:

  • Snow shovel
  • Ice scraper and a brush
  • Tow chain or strap
  • Tire chains
  • Flashlight (with extra batteries)
  • Jumper cables
  • Abrasive material (cat litter, sand, salt, or traction mats)
  • Recommended warning vest or flashing yellow light.
  • An empty coffee or similar type can containing candles, matches (in a watertight container) or a lighter, and high energy food (such as chocolate or dried fruit)
  • Blankets to keep warm if you become stranded in your vehicle.