Winter driving requires extra precautions

Debra Moore
Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Portions of this news article were published last December. We are reprinting this story because it contains useful information for winter driving.

From the twists of the Feather River Canyon to ice in the Sierra Valley and snow on Morgan Summit, motorists throughout Plumas County contend with treacherous winter driving conditions.

California Highway Patrol officers Jim Stowe and Ryan Culver shared tips to help motorists navigate the next several months.

Driving in snow

“Slow down and pay attention,” Stowe said of driving in the snow. He also recommends checking the condition of your tires.

Stowe said that 90 percent of the highway patrol vehicles use studs during the winter, and the others run with “very aggressive mud and snow tires,” which are changed out regularly.

In snow, tires must have 6/32 of an inch of tread, compared to 2/32 of an inch for dry pavement.

Stowe said that Les Schwab or any tire store can check the tread depth, or drivers are welcome to stop by the CHP office.

Tires that are designed for mud and snow will have a designation on the sidewall where the size and width are located. Stowe said to look for the letters “M” and “S” in some configuration. The next grade up will also sport a snowflake and a mountain. “That means it is intended for mountain snow,” Stowe said.

How long tread lasts depends on a number of factors, including the quality of the tire, the number of miles driven and the type of driving one does.

“If you are heading east on Highway 70 from Quincy toward Portola, there is less wear than if you are driving the Canyon,” Stowe said. “The Canyon wears out tires more quickly.”


Driving on ice

“Mud and snow tires don’t help on ice,” Stowe said. “Studs help.”

But he said not even studs ensure complete safety.

“Once you hit ice, don’t do anything or you will enter a skid,” Stowe said.

He advises that when you feel the car start to slip take your foot off the gas, and very gently and gradually steer into it. Do not try to brake.

“Don’t drop a gear,” Stowe added, but sometimes that will happen automatically if you aren’t driving a vehicle with a manual transmission.

Many cars come equipped with external temperature gauges that can be a good indicator for when ice might be forming.

“Anything below 34 or 35 degrees, you need to beware,” Stowe said.

Ice is more apt to form after it rains or snows, and Stowe cautions that the conditions can be worse in the evening than in the morning.

Some areas that are known to be icy include the Sierra Valley and the Massack area east of Quincy to Spring Garden.


Animals in the roadway

“Hit the brakes, but don’t swerve,” Stowe said.

He said one of the worst incidents he witnessed was when an individual swerved to avoid hitting a squirrel and instead hit another vehicle head-on.

He advises drivers who hit a deer to pull over to the side of the road as soon as it is safe to do so and turn on the vehicle’s hazard lights. It’s also important to check for injuries, and to assess damage to the vehicle. “You aren’t going to go very far if your radiator is leaking,” Stowe said.

If the deer is still on the roadway, Stowe advises pulling it to the side, but again, only if it is safe to do so. If it’s a state highway, Caltrans will retrieve the deer and if it’s a local road, the county road department will remove it.


Be prepared

No one plans to be in an accident, but they happen. And in rural areas help can be slow in arriving.

For example, if someone goes off the roadway on Highway 32, Officer Culver said it can take a half-hour to respond depending on where the nearest CHP unit is located — and that’s if notification comes swiftly.

Many areas do not have cellphone coverage, so often passersby must drive until they are able to call in the incident.

“You need to be prepared for cold conditions,” Culver said. “Make sure you have a blanket and warm clothing in the car.”

Culver said that even if you are uninjured it could take some time for a tow truck to arrive.

Many residents keep an emergency kit in the car. If a motorist goes off the road, it might not even be visible for a while. Officers advise that it’s a good idea to keep blankets, water, food and a first-aid kit in your vehicle.


Driving the Canyon

Officer Stowe said that the No. 1 reason for Canyon crashes is vehicles drifting off the roadway and the driver overcorrecting.

“When you hear your tires off the pavement, calmly and slowly steer back on the road,” Stowe advised. “You might lose a tire, but you won’t lose your life.”


Into the water

In 2011 the Quincy Volunteer Fire Department responded to six incidents of submerged cars.

If your car is headed into the water stay calm.

Stowe said in most instances, if a vehicle lands upright, there is time to get out.

“You are going to have to get the window down and get the seatbelt off,” he said.

Stowe said that electric windows, if not damaged, should continue to operate under water.

Doors will not open until water in the vehicle equalizes with the outside pressure, which means that the water would have to reach chest or shoulder height.

Another option is to break a window and Stowe said the back window is apt to break more easily.

If there are other people in the car, it’s important that they remove their seatbelts and prepare to exit the vehicle as well. This can be more complicated when children are involved and Stowe recommends rehearsing the scenario so that they are prepared.

But some people don’t slide into the river, they roll into it, which means they could land upside down and instantly be plunged into darkness.

Stowe said that any time a vehicle winds up in the water “it’s a very bad situation.” It’s important to stay calm and act quickly.


County trouble spots

There are several areas in the county that are notorious in the winter. Officer Stowe described the areas that are covered by the Quincy office and Officer Culver weighed in on the danger spots covered by the Chester substation.

Culver cited areas that are known for being icy, including the stretch between Prattville and Canyon Dam, the roadway between Chester and Highway 32, a curve near Fire Mountain Lodge, and the Johnson Grade.

“There are also a lot of crashes on Highway 32 and spinouts and fender benders on Morgan Summit,” he said, and added that many incidents could be avoided if drivers adhered to chain restrictions.

Culver said that quite a few cars go over the side on Highway 32, but unlike in the Canyon, not as many reach the water because there are far more trees along that route.

Stowe said that in addition to the Canyon, officers in his area have to focus on Massack, Spring Garden, Lee Summit and the Spanish Creek Bridge.

The Portola substation responds to a number of incidents due to ice in the Sierra Valley, as well as along Highway 395.

Plumas County is beautiful in the winter but it can be treacherous for travel. To remain safe, the CHP advises motorists to stay alert, slow down, adhere to chain requirements and be prepared.

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