Empty road with snow capped mountains

Does this look like a dangerous driving day to you?

We all know winter driving is extra risky. But what about a hopeful day in March, when the sun is shining and you’re joyfully congratulating yourself for surviving another season of snow and ice?

Here’s my personal story about discovering a surprising driving risk during Springtime.

It was a classic Minnesota Winter driving day in late March.

Bright sun, blue skies & 32 degrees. Still plenty cold, but the combination created the ILLUSION of Springtime.

It taught me a lesson about a different kind of driving danger at this time of year.

On my way to picking up kids from school, I saw two crashes. One was a vehicle in the highway median – upright, but stuck in an 8 foot gap between two sets of guard rails, with traffic whizzing by on both sides!

Another was a car that slid off a freeway ramp. Angled halfway down the embankment, it was waiting to be pulled up the snowy slope by a tow truck.

As I was driving, I heard a radio traffic report. It described both the crashes I’d just seen. And it also mentioned a third in the metro area.

This seemed peculiar to me. There wasn’t any snow on the roads. Visibility was great. It wasn’t rush hour.

Why so many crashes, on what seemed like a perfect day for driving?

Then I had my own close-call, which probably explains those other crashes.

As I drove on a curved ramp transitioning from I-94 to Hwy 280, the wheels of my car passed through a very small patch of melting snow. I was in the right lane of a downhill ramp with a slight arc left. The water was on the right shoulder, puddling into my lane just a little bit.

When my wheels made contact with that water, my car did a significant lurch and almost fishtailed. The momentum made it feel like my car almost hopped a foot to the right.

Car rides on big water in the rain

Car rides on big water in the rain

I was driving a Honda Fit, which is a compact, small, low-to-the-ground vehicle. If I’d been driving a taller car with a higher center of gravity, could it have flipped and rolled? I’m sure that auto engineers probably have an answer to that question.

Thinking about it now, I know I saw the sheen of water on the shoulder of that curve. Driving towards it, I thought it was just a thin layer of moisture, barely entering my lane. But now I realize that it was more than that: maybe a quarter inch of water? Maybe a bit more, with some ice underneath?

Ice or no ice, a layer of water is definitely enough to affect the momentum of a vehicle on a curve.

I’ve never before felt a vehicle I was driving jump vertically as it lost traction. Trust me: you don’t want to experience that feeling yourself.

Mike Pehl talks about momentum & curves in the Country Roads section of our Roadworthy DVD. In that lesson he describes how to be alert for the hazards of other vehicles on the curve nearby you. He teaches how to anticipate the risk from unpredictable incidents like blown tires on terrain that is not straight.

In this driving incident, I was really the only variable that mattered. It was my car, under my control, with no other vehicle jeopardizing my safety.
This near-miss was entirely within my power to avoid.

It was just a puddle, and a curve … and my own complacent attitude that caused the incident. I didn’t EXPECT to be coping with any unusual hazards driving right then.

“Blue skies, bright sun, and Springtime on the way. No worries!” That was definitely my attitude. Seemed like it made perfect sense at the time. I didn’t realize I needed to be EXTRA careful when I saw that little bit of moisture on the pavement….

Lesson learned. Melting snow is a significant danger. Even when the obvious hazards of snow and slush and sleet and ice are almost over, we still need to be alert for the risks on the roads.

From now on, I’ll remember to be alert anytime I see that welcome sign of melting snow. And I hope you will, too.

Celebrate Springtime … but remember to “drive safe, ride safe” even when it’s a glorious, happy-go-lucky, almost-the-end-of-Winter day.
-Kelly Cusick

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