Winter presents its own unique set of challenges for drivers, even the most experienced. What can start as a clear day can change quickly to stormy conditions with slick roads or poor visibility.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more truck collisions occur in winter weather than in any other season of the year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports that the leading cause of death during winter storms is transportation collisions.

At a bare minimum, fleets need to stay informed of weather forecasts and changing weather conditions by listening to weather reports on the radio and television. Web sites also can keep fleet managers informed about the latest storm watches, warnings and advisories. The National Service Web site is  

Keeping abreast of weather conditions can help a fleet prepare its drivers for their trips, alter trip routes or provide the information necessary to delay the start of runs.  

To help keep drivers safe on the road, it is a good idea to review with them the road hazards associated with winter weather and what they can do to safeguard against them.

To get some insight into preparing drivers for winter driving, I turned to a company that strives to make safety the most important issue in its day-to-day operations: Ryder System. A provider of leading-edge transportation, logistics and supply chain management solutions worldwide, it has a large, award-winning safety organization. Ryder was the first transportation company to receive the National Safety Council’s highest honor — the Green Cross for Safety medal.  

While winter is a time of quickly changing road and driving conditions, it doesn’t mean that higher collision rates are inevitable, Robert A. Prim, Ryder’s director of safety standards, informed me. He said fleet and safety managers can help their drivers greatly minimize the chances of collisions by sharing with them some simple winter driving tips:

- Don’t be overconfident. Overconfidence causes drivers to think they have more control of their vehicle than they really do. Consequences of overconfidence behind the wheel often include failure to properly negotiate a turn, skidding and jackknifing.

- Adjust quickly to new driving conditions. The first step in doing that is to reduce speed. Studies show that most weather-related collisions occur at the beginning of the weather change. Once drivers adjust to the new driving conditions, collisions drop dramatically.

- Keep an eye on the temperature. When temperatures are just above freezing, roadway traction is the worst. This is the point at which ice and water can both be present on the road resulting in extremely slick driving conditions.

- Increase vehicle space management. Add another second or two of following distance to the normal

following distance when driving on snow-covered or icy roads. A driver should stagger his vehicle’s position to vehicles on either side. When driving on multi-lane roads, a driver ought to make every effort to drive in the gaps to either side.

- Don’t use cruise control when the temperature drops below 33 degrees F. Drivers who are in the habit of using cruise control set their controls on good roads and then often forget they have the cruise control activated as they travel into poorer weather.  

- Drive wisely and cautiously. Plan ahead for gradual starts and stops. Reduce travel speed and begin stopping sooner than normal when traveling on slick or icy roads. Keep off the accelerator when crossing over a bridge or overpass.

Furthermore, accelerate slowly on ice or snow so tires don’t spin. Steer with smooth movements and avoid jerky steering or braking while turning. Slow the vehicle as it approaches the peak of a hill or if the other side of the road can’t be seen.

- Prepare in advance. Pay special attention to pre-trip vehicle inspections and make sure fuel tanks are full. You don’t want any problems on the road that could have been handled before a driver begins his route. Advance preparation also includes checking about the weather and road conditions prior to the trip as well.

- Make sure the vehicle’s lights, mirrors, windshield and windows are clean and that the defroster and windshield wipers are working at peak efficiency. It is very important that drivers can see and be seen when limited visibility is a concern.

- Be alert to the feel of the road when driving. When roadways look clean and free of snow and ice, the first indication that the road surface is beginning to get slick may simply be a feeling that a driver is starting to lose traction. Drivers should trust this feeling and take their foot off the accelerator and coast to a slower speed. Don’t brake. If the roads are slippery, braking will cause a loss of control.

- If drivers find their vehicles beginning to skid, they should back off the brakes and throttle, and on vehicles with manual transmissions, depress the clutch only. Steer and counter-steer to get back in control. In other words, “turn into the skid.”

- Drivers should always wear their seat belts.

Ryder, like many fleets, believes that drivers must be in total control of their safety and recognizes that there will be times when it is simply not safe to drive. However, the transportation and logistics provider has gone one step further, developing a formal procedure for such instances: the Captain of the Ship policy.

This policy says that drivers have the right and the responsibility to refuse to do anything they consider unsafe, including to stop driving on roads they feel are no longer safe.   

It also holds the drivers responsible not to drive in unsafe conditions. This means they can’t turn around and drive back home on the roads they have just determined to be unsafe. The policy also means that poor road conditions or poor weather conditions will rarely be considered as an acceptable reason for a vehicle collision. What a great policy, not just for safety, but for building trust between drivers and fleet safety managers. Safety and trust help improve a company’s bottom line.

Everyone doing their part will help keep fleets, their drivers and others safe in the challenging weather of winter. BI