Snow road to Christmas.

As winter approaches, I have reproduced an article I did for a local newspaper back in December 2010 when temperatures plummeted to -15 Celsius.

Snowmegeddon! It’s the moment most motorists fear…the steering has gone light, the wheels are spinning, and the car is out of control and skidding on icy compacted snow.

That’s the hazard many face as they inch vehicles across side roads which have seen no sign of grit since the snows came.

It’s already a white-out across the Fylde with fears of worse to come as the bleak mid-winter chill shows little signs of easing, and bites into the peace of mind of householders frantic to catch up with Christmas shopping, or deliver presents, and traders desperate to court festive business.

Many car owners have stayed at home or left the driving to others – there has been no shortage of commendations for Blackpool’s bus drivers for keeping the network open in spite of vehicles freezing up with the additional pressure presented by overspill onto other routes caused by road closures.

PC Dave Thomas is one of the few motorists for who the snow and ice holds few fears. He’s done the advanced police driver course, and revisits every three years for the refresher, and has gone from community beat manager in central Blackpool, to traffic officer.

He was on snow patrol last Saturday when countless bumps were reported to the 12-strong traffic squad – and is on duty over Christmas and New Year. Nights, to boot.

Dave’s just been demonstrating how to correct a skid…although he would rather we didn’t get into one in the first place.

It’s all down to speed, he says, inappropriate speed for the conditions, rather than taking things too fast and using brakes to compensate. If you have to brake use the engine’s brakes, go through the gears. That will help you keep traction on the road surface. Tyre treads (and mine are all legal – for he’s checked, along with fluid levels and lights) merely displace water. Not give you a grip in snow or ice.

We’ve been on the road for over three hours – driving over untreated roads in and around Blackpool and rural routes deep in south Fylde and Dave’s not used his brakes once. Other than the hand brake upon stopping. He’s controlled his speed by thinking well ahead, and by gearing down, or up.

One other tip? If you’re prone to slipping and sliding off from a start…try moving away in second gear, not first, to gain more traction.

And under no circumstances drive with just an envelope of a window available…as one lady driver did this week, resulting in a collision which crumpled her car, and made a sizeable impression in another.

“Take the time and trouble to clear the snow and ice off your car,” adds Dave.

Last Saturday, Dave barely ventured over 10mph in most parts of the Fylde. Today, with most of the major roads, the so called arterial links, cleared, and council contractors showing true grit in keeping on top of fresh snow falls or risk of black ice forming, Dave’s driving is almost back to normal speeds. Almost. “You let the road conditions dictate your pace,” he points out. “You also double, ideally treble, even quadruple, your stopping distance, so you have space, and time, to get out of trouble if someone else loses control.”

He also warns against overtaking in the central reservation, which remains ungritted, or covered by compacted snow.

“Head into that, at the wrong speed, and you’re heading for trouble,” he warns. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a 4×4 or any other car, the result is just the same. Nor is ABS the panacea to all problems.”

The point is made at one of the accident blackspots of the Fylde by a driver losing patience with a slow coach – and overtaking at speed, his rear wheels fish-tailing in the momentum.

So, how to get out of a skid? “Newton’s First Law of Motion,” says Dave. “An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an  external force. So lay off the brakes and the accelerator – and nine times out of 10 you’ll get control back and be able to steer out of trouble.”

One lad learned that lesson the hard way this week – having bought a £400 car for his girlfriend as a Christmas present. He had it stashed away but nipped out, after she had gone out, for a new tyre. It cost him – and others – dear. He skidded on ice into another car, heading towards him, which shunted into a parked vehicle. With his provisional licence expired (after an early ban for driving his dad’s car without supervision) the 22-year-old panicked and fled the scene, abandoning the car in a nearby road.

He later called police to confess he hadn’t got insurance either. “I’ve been stupid,” he says. He’s also been lucky. He could have been dead – or killed someone. “There’s no excuse,” says Dave. “A car’s a lethal weapon in the wrong hands.”

Plus, there’s the matter of insurance, with the burden of claim for the other two damaged vehicles falling on the motorist who had the misfortune to meet this inexperienced, unlicensed lone driver on an icy road.

Dave knows just how bad it can get. He’s had to break news of fatalities to loved ones. He’s been first on the scene of some horrific collisions – with no survivors.

He recalls how one colleague turned up where children were waiting to come home for a family celebration. “It’s the worst job in the world to do. Once you’ve done that, seen the accident scene, had to break the news to loved ones, you do all in your power to stop accidents ever happening again.

“We can’t. We still breathalyse drunk drivers – often hours after the party’s ended. We still throw the book at boy racers and hope they finally see sense. We still remind people to make the most basic safety checks, and to stop using their mobiles, and to always belt up. It’s common sense.”

And, with that he stops another motorist, white van man, no seat belt, who protests: “I always wear a seatbelt. Just not today.” Crash and it could cost his sternum, says Dave.

Courtesy of reporter Jackie Morley and the Blackpool Gazette.


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