Driving safely in wintry places Safety: Weathering bad conditions in the car means slowing down and having the kids occupied.

Taking the Kids

January 11, 1998|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

The snow wouldn't quit, but it was Matt's birthday and we had promised him dinner out. We should have known better -- around Lake Tahoe, anyway.

Talk about white-knuckle driving. We inched along the highway wondering if we'd skid into the car in front of us before the one in back skidded into us.

I'm glad to tell you we made it to the restaurant and back to the ski resort safely that night, albeit with a lot of back-seat whining. But I was never so cavalier about winter driving conditions again.

With the American Automobile Association reporting that 25 percent of winter trips -- some 38 million -- will involve snow sports, and ski resorts reporting huge numbers of family visitors, it seems a lot of you will be in the same boat I was on that nasty night in the Sierras. Three-fourths of winter vacationers will be driving, AAA says.

To me that means the squabbling kids will be hampering your concentration, whining that they're hungry, carsick or just bored.

Even being a seasoned winter driver isn't always enough. We lived in Chicago at the time of our Tahoe escapade and certainly had driven plenty in snow and ice. But winter mountain driving in blizzard conditions is a lot different from what you encounter at home.

Just ask Mark Cox. He runs the country's only winter driving school in Steamboat, Colo., teaching Secret Service and FBI agents, police and military officers, teen-agers and folks like us on an ice-slicked course how to keep our cars on the road safely in the winter. The biggest mistake we out-of-town tourists make in snow country? We drive too fast, Cox says.

"It takes four to 10 times as long to stop on ice," he cautions. Decreasing the speed will give you more reaction time, especially on a mountain road.

Mistake No. 2: We don't look down the road enough. Anticipate tricky situations if you can. For example, take your foot off the brake before steering in the curve. "Brake only when the car is traveling straight," Cox says.

Mistake No. 3: Getting on the road at all when the driving conditions are terrible. Listen to what the Highway Patrol says, winter travel experts urge.

Mistake No. 4: Overestimating the capability of four-wheel drive vehicles and anti-lock brake systems. If you're going too fast, even anti-lock brakes won't keep you on the road.

Mistake No. 5: Keeping the car too hot. Cool air not only makes you more alert, but will keep the windows clear of frost.

Drive with the lights on, too, Cox urges, whenever daytime visibility isn't good. "Remember: wipers on, lights on," he says.

Low-beam lights provide better road illumination in snow and fog, AAA says.

Here are some other Winter Family Driving Smarts:

* Insist that all kids 12 and under sit in the back, securely buckled in seat belts or safety seats. Although most Americans who have air bags say they know it's far safer for children to ride in the back, many still put infant seats in front, says the National Safety Council.

* Bring books-on-tape (you can rent them from your local library or video store), music, art supplies and a few "surprise" new toys so the kids will be too busy to whine and distract you.

* Always have water bottles and snacks, including a few treats, easily accessible. The point here is to keep the kids occupied as much as possible.

* In a skid, ease off the accelerator and carefully steer in the direction you want to go, AAA says. Watch out for other drivers who may not be prepared for the road conditions.

* Be prepared in case you get stranded. Bring along a cell phone and adapter so you can plug it into the cigarette lighter. Tie a brightly colored cloth around the antenna to signal distress and make sure the exhaust pipe isn't clogged for carbon monoxide reasons.

* Your emergency kit should include jumper cables, flashlight with fresh batteries, first aid kit, ice scraper, roll of paper towels and if possible, a small shovel. Buy a bag of salt or sand at a gas station before you get going.

* Stash blankets, extra warm clothes, food, water and any needed medication in the car. Pillows from home will make the kids more comfortable.

* Stay with the car if you're unexpectedly snowbound. You've got good temporary shelter and it's easier for rescuers to find you, explains Chuck Butler, director of AAA's Driver Safety Services. Never try to walk in a bad storm. It's too easy to get lost.

Haven't the kids been begging to build a snowman? Have a safe trip.

Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053 or e-mail to eogintzol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in future columns.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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