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Bracing for winter

Published on: October 06, 2016

Whether it's black ice or reduced daylight hours, winter brings demanding driving challenges. We explore how employers can help workers avoid the hazards.

Trucks in the winter

When the weather is good, it's difficult to picture the harsh hazards of a winter drive. But, from the extremes of massive snowdrifts on mountain passes, to rain, snow, fog banks, fewer daylight hours, and the threat of black ice lurking under the wheel, B.C. is almost guaranteed to whip up adverse weather conditions to challenge most journeys.

British Columbia sees an alarming spike from fall to early winter in the number of motor vehicle incidents in which a person is killed or injured due to driving too fast for road conditions. On average, the number of incidents nearly doubled (from 114 to 222) across the province between October and December during 2010–2014. Breaking that down by region, according to ICBC, the Southern Interior rose fourfold from about 23 to 93; the Lower Mainland increased from 51 to 59; Northern Central, from 18 to 44; and Vancouver Island went from about 22 to 26.

For commercial drivers and road maintenance workers, trying to prevent winter crashes always translates into drivers ensuring that vehicles are geared up correctly for this type of changeable weather and that they are physically and mentally prepared before they head off.

"People have crashes because all it takes is a little bit of an oversight or overestimation not only of one's abilities, perhaps, but also because they think the road is better than it is," explains Rick Viventi, director of health, safety and environment for Kamloops-based Arrow Transportation Systems, which has 1,000 employees and 400 trucks hauling goods across North America. "Then before you know it, you're off the road and you've hurt yourself or someone else. People must consider what could happen if you're not going to behave according to the conditions."

Viventi advises that, for all drivers, taking their foot off the accelerator is critically important. "People must slow down," he stresses. "Regardless of what you are driving, you have to be smooth, methodical, and purposeful when steering and braking."

Employers also have a role to play in road safety before their workers get out on the road, notes WorkSafeBC transportation industry specialist Kevin Bennett. If you supervise workers who drive a commercial truck, work van, or personal vehicle, ask yourself these questions, says Bennett. "Have you taken steps to ensure their safety, especially during the B.C. winter driving season? Are your workers familiar with the company driving policy, written safe work procedures, and working alone protocols? Have they received education and training on how to respond to winter driving conditions? Have they received guidance to check conditions before they travel?" Taking the time to address these issues before heading out on the road leaves workers better prepared for the variable conditions they may face.

The perils of overtaking snowplows

Road maintenance adds another element to the winter landscape. Despite the "Do Not Pass" warnings and flashing amber lights on plows (usually travelling at 60km/h), some drivers frequently overtake these vehicles and end up clipping the wing that may stick out two metres on either side of the plow.

"It's insane to overtake a plow," says Blair Barr, general manager of VSA Highway Maintenance Ltd. in Merritt. He cites "an unprecedented" 11 crashes in 2015 among the 30 trucks the company runs on B.C. roads, including the Coquihalla Highway. "Sometimes you can't see those attachments in the cloud of snow and in many cases drivers end up pushing us into the ditch and causing damage to themselves."

Plows now often work in tandem to effectively block the road and prevent these types of maneuvers. They typically pull over to allow traffic to pass every 10–15 kilometres. Kevin Bennett points out that there needs to be patience for the workers who make roads safer for other users.

"Road maintenance plow operators are performing an important public service — at all hours — to keep highways open and safe for travel. Passing a plow puts you and the workers operating these vehicles at risk of a preventable and potentially serious crash." Bennett adds, "Drivers should stay about 10 car lengths behind a plow."

Overall, it is often about the decisions made behind the wheel that will get people home safely. "If you choose to make a poor decision, you can — and most times you will — get in trouble," Viventi concludes.

How employers can be winter ready

If you are an employer who requires workers to drive during winter, it's your responsibility to ensure the health and safety of all your workers who drive for work. Here are some tips on how you can be winter ready.

Prepare your workers

Where possible, promote alternatives to driving such as email or videoconferencing and, where available, public transportation. When travel is necessary, follow these steps to reduce the risk of a motor vehicle incident:

  • In adverse conditions, consider whether the journey can be postponed.
  • Take time to plan the journey. Work out the safest time to drive, be mindful of fewer daylight hours, and identify the most suitable routes. And build in time for the likelihood of reduced speeds and delays. Have them check sites such as DriveBC before starting their trip.
  • Conditions can change quickly. Workers must be alert during times when black ice can form, typically when temperatures fluctuate between +5° and -5° C. Educate your drivers to exercise caution and safely reduce speed when driving in shaded areas and on bridges and overpasses, which can freeze faster.
  • Drivers must follow messages posted on official fixed and digital highway signs, including the recently introduced variable speed limit signs.
  • A regular posted speed limit is for ideal road conditions, so drivers have a duty to reduce their speed and drive according to the conditions. In winter, remind drivers to increase the distance between their vehicle and the vehicle in front.
  • Advise your workers to be careful when driving in areas with pedestrian traffic.
  • Educate your drivers to follow the "slow down move over" law when they encounter vehicles with flashing amber or blue and red lights.
  • Drivers of passenger cars and light-duty trucks must share the road with commercial vehicles, which have long stopping distances. Be aware of the blind spots on these large vehicles, give them extra space, and never cut in front — only pass in front of a large truck when you see both of its headlights in your rear-view mirror.

Prepare your vehicles

  • Make sure that your work vehicles are properly inspected and maintained.
  • Properly inflated winter tires (identified by a mountain/snowflake symbol on the sidewall) or mud and snow tires in good condition are required for most B.C. highways between October 1st and March 31st. Tires must have a minimum tread depth of at least 3.5 mm.
  • If you operate commercial vehicles, check that the trucks are equipped with tire chains that are in good working order and that the driver has been trained to safely and correctly install them.
  • Give your engine a pre-winter check-up, looking at the belts, brakes, battery, exhaust, electrical, and cooling and heating systems.
  • Before you leave, make sure that snow and ice have been safely removed from the lights, windows, mirrors, and flat surfaces.

For more brochures, resources, tips and other information on winter driving, visit Shift into winter.