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Apply the laws of physics to winter driving

January 15, 2011
By Dave Werner, Franklin County Traffic Safety Board,

(Editor's note: 'Safety on the Roads' normally appears on Page A5 of the Saturday paper. Due to space constraints on that page, it runs on this page today.)


Winter driving comes with a whole set of its own driving problems, including slippery conditions. When the road surface is slippery from ice and snow, control of vehicles is much different from the way they behave under bare road conditions.

A little refresher of high-school physics can be helpful here. Do you remember the law of physics that says, "An object in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by outside forces"? This is important to stopping, no matter what the driving conditions. When a driver needs to slow or stop, he/she steps on the brakes, which then try to slow the rotation of the vehicle's wheels. If the road is bare, the coefficient of friction is high and the tires grip the road well, slowing or stopping the vehicle quite easily. However, if the road surface is slippery, the coefficient of friction is much lower and therefore the wheels cannot stop the momentum of the vehicle as quickly. Thus, a greater distance is required for slowing or stopping.

Laws of physics also say objects in motion tend to remain in motion in the same direction unless acted on by an outside force. This is important when you need to turn your vehicle, such as rounding a curve. The higher the speed, the greater the vehicle's momentum will act to resist the turn, and the less the coefficient of friction, the less chance the vehicle has to negotiate the turn. Thus, on slippery surfaces with a reduced coefficient of friction, a reduced speed is vital to negotiating the change in direction.

The above concepts are important to safe driving in winter. Be alert to changing conditions. Roads can go from bare to snow-covered in minutes. Snow-covered roads can change to slushy conditions rapidly as road crews apply de-icing materials. This can often be worse than snowy conditions. The slush can act as an outside force that tries to change the direction of your moving vehicle. It can "pull" your vehicle into a skid. A good driver recognizes a change to slushy conditions and reacts accordingly.

Too often after a snowy day and the associated increase in highway crashes, the following day's newspaper might have a headline that reads, "SNOW, ICY ROADS CAUSE NUMEROUS ACCIDENTS" or something similar. But, shouldn't that headline read, "NUMEROUS CRASHES CAUSED BY DRIVERS GOING TOO FAST FOR CONDITIONS"?

The answer, of course, is a definitive "yes." Snow and icy conditions may have been a contributing factor, but the real culprit is the drivers that are traveling too fast for the slippery conditions of snow and ice. In fact, rain, snow, fog, sleet or icy pavements have never CAUSED an accident, a direct quote from the Loss Control Department of Utica National Insurance Group.

The bottom line is that adverse weather conditions are not a valid excuse for losing control of your vehicle. These conditions merely increase the hazards of driving. The real cause is failure to adjust driving to the prevailing weather conditions.

Take responsibility for your vehicle's condition and especially for your driving actions, and don't blame the weather.


For more safe driving articles, go to the Franklin County Traffic Safety Board's website at



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