After the fall season, truckers traveling in the north or the midwest U.S. need to start thinking about winter weather now. Driving in snowy or icy conditions is one of the most dangerous tasks for truckers. It demands a certain set of skills and knowledge to ensure safe transit not only for the driver and their commodities but also for other pedestrians with whom they share the road.
Operating a tractor-trailer in harsh winter weather presents a host of problems. Drivers must account for unplanned stops, other vehicles around them, and unsafe driving conditions. To successfully make a trip through snow or ice, drivers will need special tools and clothing to counteract any problems they will likely face along the way. Proper education of the route and planning for unsafe driving conditions is what separates the most elite drivers from the rest of the group.
Most Dangerous Winter Roads in the U.S.
All highways can become dangerous during inclement weather, but some are worse than others. Several major highways across the U.S. are notorious for being especially treacherous during the winter months. It’s important for all drivers traveling through these areas to be aware of the dangers they can present.
Highway 550 in Colorado
This highway, often referred to as the “Million Dollar Highway,” snakes through Colorado and New Mexico. It’s a narrow road with two lanes at some points. To make matters worse, it’s built into the side of mountains that are well above sea level. Blizzards can make eyesight very poor, and icy roads leave truckers at risk of sliding off cliffs.
Montana’s Highway 2
Other than the harsh snowstorms and lack of infrastructure, the most dangerous aspect of Montana’s Highway 2 is the speed in which accidents can occur. It’s an open road that encourages speeding and passing slower vehicles. Because of the high speeds, the wrecks are much more impactful. If an accident does occur, it can take over an hour for an ambulance to reach the scene because the highway is so remote. Add black ice, blizzards, and high winds to the mix, and you’ve got a recipe for multiple disasters.
The Dalton Highway in Alaska
The Dalton Highway is a 414-mile stretch of a trucker’s worst frozen nightmares. Drivers are constantly threatened by sub-zero temperatures, icy roads, and avalanches. What makes the Dalton Highway especially dangerous is that it includes a 240-mile stretch of nearly complete isolation. There are no hotels, gas stations, or any other signs of basic civilization for the entirety of that stretch. Drivers making this trek will need to bring extra food, water, and supplies in case they get stuck. It could be several hours or even days before help can arrive.
U.S. Route 212 in Montana
We’re back in Montana (no surprise here) for U.S. Route 212, also known as Beartooth Highway. This road reaches heights of over 10,000 feet in some areas as it slithers through the mountains. Drivers must prepare for extremely sharp turns, blizzards, and steep elevation drops. Thankfully, this highway is far safer now than it was back when it opened in 1936 when the road was nothing more than a two-lane gravel pathway.
Winter Driving Tips and Tools for Truck Drivers
Truckers train to be the safest they can possibly be on the roads, but sometimes, the weather makes driving extremely difficult or even impossible. This is especially true in the case of extreme winter weather conditions. Snow and ice can transform paved highway roads into slippery obstacle courses overnight. Heavy snowfall hinders eyesight and makes it difficult to identify other vehicles or guardrails. Ice can accumulate on air tanks and other essential components of the truck. The weather can be unpredictable and often unavoidable, but following some of these tips can help a trucker navigate safely to their destination.
- Slow Down
This may seem obvious, but the pressures of timely delivery and fast service put a lot of stress on the driver to complete their run as quickly as possible. This mentality can be extremely dangerous to the truckers and the other drivers on the road. Even the speed limit may be too fast in snowy or icy conditions. Take as much time as necessary to ensure the safety of everyone involved. Pull over and wait for conditions to improve if the weather is too dangerous to continue.
- Avoid Traveling in Packs
It’s common for traffic to move through highways in a “pack,” but this practice can be risky in subpar winter weather. It is imperative to keep plenty of distance between vehicles and other trucks. Heavy snowfall can make it nearly impossible to see the other vehicles traveling in a pack, so it’s best to break away from the group and find a lane that provides a safe distance from everyone else.
- Carry a Bag of Kitty Litter
While parked, warm tires can melt the snow into water, which then freezes over time and turns into ice right underneath the truck. This can be very difficult to escape once formed. Throwing kitty litter underneath the tires and around the ice can help give the driver that extra little bit of grip that allows them to pull away safely.
- Keep a Hammer or Putty Knife
Snow from the roads can accumulate under the truck after a few hours of driving. Heat from the machinery melts the snow, but any snow that is melted eventually turns into ice due to the cold metal surrounding it. It accumulates in the air tanks, but it can be broken apart and removed with the help of a hammer or putty knife.
- Use Tire Chains
Chains provide extra grip and stability on icy roads, and can also help a driver escape muddy areas. States such as Colorado and Wyoming require the use of tire chains to better protect drivers and others on the roads. In states where chains are required, there are heavy fines for all who break the law; OTR drivers should check laws before traveling.
Clothing and Tools for Winter Driving
It’s always a good idea to bring something and not need it, rather than not bringing it and really needing it. With that in mind, truckers should consider keeping the following items with them when driving through dangerous winter conditions:
- Extra jackets, insulated socks, and gloves
- Waterproof boots
- Food and water
- Propane heater/lighter
- Methyl hydrate (for fuel and airlines)
- Windshield washer fluid
Autonomous Driving in Winter Weather
It is clear that weather and other factors outside of the driver’s control can cause accidents, but many wrecks still come down to human error. Accidents can be especially threatening to human life in remote areas of the country where blizzards and ice are most prevalent. Human drivers may no longer be forced to travel through risky areas due to advancements in automated trucking. It will be some time before this technology is commonplace, but some companies in the industry have already invested a ton of money into driverless trucks.
One such company, Embark Trucks Inc., has already tested their robot drivers in dangerous winter conditions. Earlier this year, they conducted test runs in Montana on public roads in differing winter conditions. The driverless trucks made a 60-mile round trip run through snow, ice, and most importantly, other drivers to test their Vision Map Fusion (VMF) technology. Results of the study showed that the VMF was 90% successful in navigating in inclement weather. They were also successful in pausing travel and resuming when conditions permitted.
Admittedly, 90% is 10% too low for drivers who are hesitant to share the road with robots, especially in winter weather. When successfully implemented, driverless trucks will keep human drivers out of harm’s way on the country’s most dangerous roadways.
Truckers have a lot to consider and prepare for when traveling through northern states during the winter. The everyday dangers of being behind the wheel can be exaggerated greatly by blizzards, icy roads, and avalanches. Drivers need to prepare for the worst at all times. They must ensure that they have all of the necessary equipment, as well as extra food and water. This is especially true when traveling one of the many notoriously dangerous winter roads across the U.S.
The technology is still a decade or two away from full-time service. Until then, the results of the test gave Embark and others in the trucking industry confidence in the promise of autonomous trucking. Autonomous-focused or not, companies should be leveraging technology to better prepare drivers and equipment to handle winter weather.