Holiday Driving Tips


My late grandmother could put more elegance to language than anyone I’ve ever known. She could also eviscerate an adversary and shred their arguments into fine little pieces suitable for slicing tomatoes, but that’s another story entirely. There was one phrase in particular that seemed almost musical in its graceful refinement. She always employed it when praying for our family when we were about to make a long trip, kindly asking The Almighty to extend us, “traveling mercies.”

This delightfully antiquated and genteel turn of expression occurred to me last Saturday when I had a close call on the highway. Traveling south of Erie, Pennsylvania, I first ran smack into the “lake effect” snow machine. What had started as a few stray flakes in the wind, as if someone in the vehicle in front of me had a dandruff problem, suddenly became a wall of white, with snowflakes as large as quarters quickly piling onto the windshield. There’s a way to handle that, and I’ll get to it in a moment — but first, the event:

Continuing down I-71 toward Columbus, Ohio, the snow was sporadic and mostly uneventful, though northbound truckers were alerting us to a bridge about an hour north of Columbus that was completely frozen over. “A solid sheet of ice,” one driver said, and as we approached it we could see the result. One SUV was in the ditch in the median, a state trooper parked nearby. Another vehicle had run off the other side of the highway, with a tow truck and another state trooper in attendance. On the far side of the bridge was another vehicle that spun off into the woods, with yet another state trooper there. Those were all on the northbound side. On the southbound side, where I was headed, one vehicle had spun into the railing of the bridge, with a state trooper in attendance and an ambulance pulling up to it. Another vehicle had spun off the highway, with another ambulance pulling up as well. It usually requires a parade to produce this many blinking lights.

Having already downshifted to 8th gear (about 30 mph), I wanted to ease across the thing without applying any brakes or throttle, with minimum steering, just letting quiet inertia bring me to my goal … sort of like the RNC’s theory of winning elections. And with about as much success. The rear end of the tractor lost traction and began sliding to my left, as if out from under me. As I found in the military, good training pays off. I engaged the clutch immediately while applying no brake or throttle. Simultaneously, a sort of tunnel vision occurred as I found a fixed object in front of me and gently steered toward that object.

There was minimal response to my steering, so I figured I was pretty much without traction. I didn’t check the mirrors to see where the trailer was because I didn’t want to take my eyes off of that point of reference toward which I was steering. Besides, if the trailer passed me up, there wasn’t a helluva lot I could do about it, and to take my eyes off the reference point would only make things worse. My fear was that anyone alongside of me was now in mortal danger, and there was that car and ambulance on the right-side rail.

Fortunately, as events seemed about to spin out of control, I reached the end of the bridge, which brought dry pavement. The truck righted itself quickly and the trailer wasn’t so far out of kilter that it didn’t fall in line too. I found a nice truck stop and, over a hot meal, meditated on, A) the fact that the laws of physics respect no one, and B) the humility that accompanied my suspicion that some person or persons had prayed for “traveling mercies” for me that day.

I would be eternally thankful on Thanksgiving, if I could pass along a few items as you embark on your holiday travels, and so with your kind indulgence: 

* A warmer windshield is a great antidote to snow accumulation that could block your field of vision. I turn up the heat, put the thing on “Defrost,” and then turn my sun-visors almost straight down, angling them more toward my lap. This helps trap the hot air from the defrost against the windshield a bit longer, which in turn will not only melt the snow quicker, but will lessen ice build-up on the wiper blades themselves, making them more effective.

* Watch your side mirror brackets from time to time. If there’s ice build-up on them (from road spray of other vehicles), chances are the roads are starting to freeze. Greater still is the possibility that bridges will be icy.

* Highway exits and entrances are often more icy than the highway surface itself, meaning that getting on or off the highway could be particularly tricky.

* In foggy condition, it’s best not to drive faster than your field of vision, meaning that if you can only see 20 yards in front of you it’s best to drive at a speed that will allow you to stop within 20 yards. If it’s simultaneously foggy and icy, I can recommend several places that serve good coffee. Find one please. In fact, I’m writing this piece tonight precisely because I had to shut down early due to fog/ice/mountains.

* If you lose traction, as noted above, find a fixed point in front of you (tree line, overhead sign, guardian angel, etc) and steer toward that point. Don’t use brakes or gas as that will only make a spin out more likely.

* If you find yourself in icy conditions, allow extra space between you and everyone else. Don’t travel in the pack, because their mistake will become your emergency. For that matter, that’s a good rule of thumb in good conditions as well.

* I have almost a million miles under my belt in a big rig. The laws of physics remain singularly unimpressed with my accomplishment. No matter how many times you’ve driven that stretch of highway, immunity will not be forthcoming. When it comes to driving, you’re only as good as what you are doing in the present tense. 

* Give big trucks even more room than usual when driving in winter conditions.

* Give RVs as much space as you should give big trucks.

* Watch other vehicles and try and deduce the worst possible thing they could do at any given time. It’s a fun way to occupy the mind and a great deal of the time they will do it … and you’ll be ready.

* In a major traffic jam, the lane that moves fastest is often the lane that is closed further ahead. Best bet is to select the lane with the highest number of big trucks.

* It’s a good idea to carry a few extra items during the winter. Blankets and some food and water are nice to have. Kitty litter is great for gaining a little traction should your vehicle get stuck on ice. A flashlight is a must, and a hammer helps should you need to actually break up the ice around your tires before throwing down the kitty litter. For that matter, a car charger for your cell phone isn’t a bad idea either.

* If you don’t feel safe in inclement weather or road conditions, find a place to stop. Bad driving conditions will cause you to fatigue quicker than usual, slowing your reaction time behind the wheel. Grandma’s house will still be there the next day. My biggest fear on Saturday was that this behemoth I drive might hurt someone, and there’s no freight in the world worth doing that. The same basic principle applies in your travels as well.

* If you have a smartphone, WeatherBug is a great app. I use it constantly. There are many wonderful apps out there, and they will give weather alerts on your current location, and many include detailed weather radar so you can see what you are driving into. Likewise, there are many great apps that detail what motels, restaurants, etc., are in your immediate vicinity should you find that you need to pull over. 

* To this great and extended family of mine on Ricochet, Happy Thanksgiving! May “traveling mercies” be yours now and always.

There are 37 comments.

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  1. Member

    God bless and keep you safe, Dave. And thanks, as always, for a fascinating look into your world. 

    • #1
    • November 27, 2013 at 1:03 am
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  2. Thatcher

    Stay safe out there, Dave, and everyone else. This was always the worst holiday for traffic on I-85 coming home from school near Charlotte. Seemed it either rained coming home or going back on Sunday. I will say all that time on the interstate helped hone my driving skills. My dad made sure I had a working CB in the car because the truckers could alert to any trouble spots.

    D.C. you can wave as you go by Raleigh. FYI, they had a tornado in Carteret County last night.

    • #2
    • November 27, 2013 at 4:48 am
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  3. Contributor

    Blondie— I’ll be stopping by NC State to pick up my son, so I will definitely give you a wave. :) I hadn’t heard about the tornado in Carteret. I hope everyone is ok. The rain was bad here in Charlotte, but it’s calmed down some this morning. Still, dreary out though.

    • #3
    • November 27, 2013 at 5:38 am
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  4. Member

    Thanks for these timely tips, Dave. I’ve already passed them on, especially to my northern friends, but may need them myself tomorrow as we head from Chattanooga to Knoxville. Some crazy weather out there!

    Traveling mercies to all on this holiday weekend!

    • #4
    • November 27, 2013 at 6:04 am
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  5. Thatcher
    D.C. McAllister: I hadn’t heard about the tornado in Carteret. I hope everyone is ok. The rain was bad here in Charlotte, but it’s calmed down some this morning. Still, dreary out though. · 41 minutes ago

    They are saying now may have just been strong winds. Nobody hurt seriously, though. Thankfully.

    Safe travel to all!

    • #5
    • November 27, 2013 at 6:42 am
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  6. Thatcher

    I told my wife we would never go to visit her family in Northern Ohio in the winter and we don’t.

    Here in the ATL, if it snows, I stay home. 1/2″ and thing shut down anyway. Some counties have all of one snow plow that gets used once every three years.

    Hot Tea time!

    • #6
    • November 27, 2013 at 7:34 am
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  7. Member

    Warm windshields even if it’s only in the 30’s. We recently went over a pass where it went from 32 degrees to 17 in about 100 feet. Unaware (and behind a truck kicking up sudden ice) we turned on the washer fluid! Luckily we have a monster truck with a monster defroster.

    The biggest problem is people drive too fast. They can’t seem to help themselves.

    • #7
    • November 27, 2013 at 7:43 am
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  8. Member

    I wanted to ease across the thing without applying any brakes or throttle, with minimum steering, just letting quiet inertia bring me to my goal, …sort of like the RNC’s theory of winning elections.

    That cracked Me up. I’m still giggling.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Dave.

    • #8
    • November 27, 2013 at 8:02 am
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  9. Member

    We came across a whiteout condition a couple of years ago on I-70 outside of Kansas City. One minute the weather was fine and the next you couldn’t see the car next to you. Fortunately my husband was in quick control of the situation and reduced his speed, keeping a healthy distance from the other cars in front of us. Traffic came to a standstill and as the snow started to dissipate, we saw the massive 20 car pileup wedged inside of a bridge overpass. We were only about 50 yards from being part of this accident. Looking behind us, more pileups. We turned around in the median and drove the 15 miles back home where the sun was shining and you would never know what had just happened. Fortunately, no one was hurt in any of the accidents along that stretch that day. Do I have a healthy respect for what Mother Nature can do at any given moment…you bet I do.

    • #9
    • November 27, 2013 at 8:04 am
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  10. Member

    I like that sun visor advice. Never thought of that. Just last week (in the mountains just east of Albuquerque) I was frustrated that my defrost wasn’t reaching the top of the wiper span during a freezing mist. This would have helped. 

    With that, I like to find a sweet temperature and speed where I can send the heat to my feet, and snowflakes no longer stick. 

    Also like the RV advice. Many times people have asked– no, demanded– amazing things of me in my RV, and I’m not a pro like you truckers.

    • #10
    • November 27, 2013 at 8:17 am
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  11. Coolidge

    Can I just say, I love driving in the snow. And when I say love, it cannot be understated. I love it. Mostly because you can park anywhere and say you didn’t see the lines. ;-)

    • #11
    • November 27, 2013 at 8:21 am
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  12. Coolidge

    Although I also need to say that every winter, the first snowy Monday morning brings at least one roll over, and lots of in the ditches. People shouldn’t drive in the snow if they don’t know how.

    • #12
    • November 27, 2013 at 8:22 am
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  13. Member

    Happy Thanksgiving Dave, and know my 4 grandsons and daughter will be reading your article tomorrow.

    • #13
    • November 27, 2013 at 8:27 am
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  14. Inactive

    Great advice, Dave. A skill I learned years ago for automatics is to get used to shifting into neutral when you find yourself slipping on ice, especially with rear wheel drives. Disengaging the drive does wonders when navigating curves. The husband and I were out driving on Saturday night too; from Indianapolis to Lansing, when I-69 froze over. Suddenly, traffic crunched to a complete stop for four hours due to a fatal accident. When we were finally allowed to move again, 3 cars immediately spun off into the median. The state troopers hadn’t time to leave the scene of the first accident, and simply ran across the grass with flashlights swinging. More rules; if you are in an accident on the freeway, resist the urge to get out of the car. The man killed on 1-69 was crushed when a third car slid into the accident scene. Always carry blankets, stay gassed up, and never pass up an opportunity to visit the restroom. After four hours in a chilly car, the first sign we passed was a “rest area ahead” with a “closed” sign affixed to it. Below, it said, “next rest area 41 miles”.

    • #14
    • November 27, 2013 at 8:29 am
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  15. Inactive

    In icy conditions you can either 1) brake, or 2) change lanes… do not attempt to do both at the same time.

    • #15
    • November 27, 2013 at 9:03 am
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  16. Member

    If anyone still burns coal for heat, save those ashes. They’re already paid for and I found them just as effective, if not more so, than kitty litter in northeast Pa. (Dave, I grew up off I-81 and the Northeast Extension of the PA Turnpike. There’s some nasty hills in the towns. In fact, you have to go up some pretty treacherous hills from all directions to get to my mom’s house.)

    Ruff. And a not Ruff Thanksgiving trek to y’all.

    • #16
    • November 27, 2013 at 9:06 am
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  17. Inactive

    I’ve shared these on Twitter and Facebook – great tips! I will be using the visor trick the next time I’m running my defroster – I’ve never heard of that one.

    We’re sticking around home this year – we had 2 memorable holiday drives in the past. Got semi-stuck in Conway AR one Christmas due to ice en route to Memphis. Nobody to staff the Denny’s, so the customers cooked. When we left the next morning (in brilliant sun), I-40 was a skating rink, and we made it to Little Rock about dinner time. No room in any of the inns anywhere that night; we slept in the car in a hotel parking lot for a while. Ugh.

    The other one was driving from Birmingham to Memphis in an ice storm – on a cloverleaf on-ramp to 240, some other drivers had stopped their car on the high side of the curve and got out, and couldn’t make it back up the slope to their car. I got stuck standing in a relatively flat parking lot on that trip. Mid-South ice is Nasty!

    • #17
    • November 27, 2013 at 9:14 am
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  18. Inactive

    Thank you, Mr. Carter, for taking time to share your list of safety hints with us.

    A safe and happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

    • #18
    • November 27, 2013 at 9:14 am
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  19. Inactive

    Mr. Carter, I love your grandmother’s phrase. It is so perfect. Also, thank you for your post; it might be the best Ricochet post ever in my mind. 

    May traveling mercies extend to all here for this Holiday.

    • #19
    • November 27, 2013 at 9:48 am
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  20. Inactive

    Tires. A good set of winter tires is a must. Here in Michigan when I see cars off the road it’s a good bet they are running a set of worn out all-seasons. I also notice the 4 wheel drive vehicles are even further off the road. They are usually over confident and driving much to fast. So when they leave the road the higher ground clearance and much greater momentum carry them into the woods.

    • #20
    • November 27, 2013 at 9:50 am
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  21. Inactive

    Traveling mercies always, Dave.

    • #21
    • November 27, 2013 at 10:30 am
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  22. Member

    Sometimes I HATE California … but not after reading your post. I will be making the easy drive from Monrovia to Torrance on Thanksgiving Day. There’s nothing that can happen that will require the use of kitty litter, this I can say for sure.

    My husband and I had a blowout on the way home from St George to LA and I’ve actually been bragging about the fact that 1) he knew how to change the tire on what to us is a new car (because he got a flat in UT the night before) and 2) I handled it with good humor, harkening back to every road trip I ever took with my father where 1) you never arrived at your destination. And if you did, certainly not at the appointed time, and 2) something broke. Thermostat, tire, whatever.

    Happy Thanksgiving Dave! And traveling mercies always. Or as MY grandmother would have said, “safe journey”.

    • #22
    • November 27, 2013 at 10:38 am
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  23. Contributor

    Thank you, Dave — and timely. I’m traveling from Charlotte to the coast tomorrow and the weather here is terrible. Cold and rainy. I’ll take my time as I head up 85 and over 40. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • #23
    • November 27, 2013 at 10:42 am
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  24. Inactive

    That’s why you should always pick rear wheel drive. FWD gets you along in the snow and rain without too much effort, lulling you into a false sense of security, then it lets go and there’s very little you can do but pray. The wheels that put down the power are the same ones that do the steering, and that’s just too much.

    Rear drive keeps you on your toes constantly, countersteering, playing with throttle and brake, and when it lets go, you can still control the car, because the wheels that do the steering still have traction. 

    • #24
    • November 27, 2013 at 10:56 am
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  25. Inactive


    You didn’t mention airlines! Mrs. Darth Vader Junior and I drove from Seattle To Iowa in December of 1977. Dumbest thing we ever did, I think! I’ll never forget the trucker between Worthington, Minnesota and Sibley, Iowa (home town) who blasted on past us at five in the morning and then waited in the next town until he saw us in his rearview mirror and then lead us all the way home through the snow drifts. God Bless and a Happy Thanksgiving where ever you are!


    • #25
    • November 27, 2013 at 11:13 am
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  26. Thatcher

    I learned to drive in February in Wyoming. The snow doesn’t melt until May. However, after marrying my Navy sweetheart, we lived in Southern California for the next 14 years. It was like heaven driving there. We also lived by the Chesapeake Bay for ten years and you can keep your ice storms and freezing rain. Now I’m in the desert and I’ll probably stay here forever, if for no other reason than the dry roads. We never have to shovel the sunshine.

    Take care of yourself, Dave. It’s crazy out there. Your advice: “Watch other vehicles and try and deduce the worst possible thing they could do at any given time. It’s a fun way to occupy the mind and, a great deal of the time they will do it and you’ll be ready “ is what has kept my motorcycle riding husband alive these 45 years he’s been in the wind. Happy Thanksgiving to you.

    • #26
    • November 27, 2013 at 11:46 am
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  27. Member
    6foot2inhighheels: Always carry blankets, stay gassed up, and never pass up an opportunity to visit the restroom. 

    One of the longest nights of my life… Driving from Phoenix back to Milwaukee in March 199(9)? Intended to stop for the night in OK city. Unfortunately a snowstorm had closed the eastbound turnpike, so all the motels in town were full. But they’d just re-opened the turnpike (this was pushing midnight), so I gassed up, bought a soda or two and figured I’d head up the road.

    Unfortunately, “opened” was a relative term. One lane plowed, snow-covered and icy. No shoulders clear. a line of cars and trucks moving very slowly. More significantly, no rest areas had been plowed out – did I mention I was driving a two-seater with very low ground clearance? About three hours later I realized the soda had been a major mistake, but the only option would have been to stop in the traffic lane and hoof it into the woods while everybody behind me waited. I finally reached the end of the turnpike around 7 AM, and almost had to crawl into the bathroom at the gas station.

    • #27
    • November 28, 2013 at 1:46 am
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  28. Member

    Thanks Dave for the story and driving tips, the weather here in England hasn’t turned bad yet but when we get those 1/2 inch snow drifts it’s nothing but CHAOS :). HAPPY THANKSGIVING to you and the rest of Ricochet.

    • #28
    • November 28, 2013 at 2:48 am
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  29. Inactive
     Mr. Roberts, Where are you in England?

    I have immediate family in Devon, Dorset, Sussex and Gloucestershire…

    • #29
    • November 28, 2013 at 6:41 am
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  30. Reagan

    I would modify the Kitty Litter suggestion.

    Bring a bag of concrete or cement (well wrapped) in the back of your vehicle. Pour that on top of tires that are stuck in snow, and you can get instant traction. As the tire rotates down, it deposits the concrete exactly where it can be the most help. It is otherwise very tough to put gravel UNDER the tire to grip the ice.

    Kitty Litter will just fly away. Concrete is very sticky and really embeds itself in ice and tires. And besides, it is cheaper than Kitty Litter to boot.

    • #30
    • November 28, 2013 at 6:54 am
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