Winter is well upon us. While we are in California, wet and snowy weather affects everyone. One of the saddest aspects of our work is the realization that many of the cases we handle could have been avoided had the drivers been more cautious. You cannot control how everyone else drives. But you can increase your odds by exercising caution yourself. The advice we provide below applies to all vehicles. Remember that every time you pull out of your driveway, you share the road with 80,000-pound big rigs. Big rigs, due to their weight and size, respond differently than cars. Trained professionals usually drive tractor-trailer combinations. These professionals use their training and experience to drive safely. The safe operation is limited by the individual behind the wheel. If that driver is tired, inattentive, in a rush or has cut corners in other safety areas, the big rig becomes an 80,000-pound hazard. Don’t leave your safety or the safety of your loved ones solely in their hands—you too need to drive safely while sharing the road with commercial drivers. Exercise caution on the road and help them do their job.
- It’s all about the tires. There are only four points of contact that your car has with the ground. A typical passenger car tire has 20 square inches in contact with the road. You can have the best safety system in the world and use extreme caution but if your tires are not well maintained or aren’t appropriate for the conditions, you will have problems. The three key areas are tire pressure, tread depth and tire weather rating.
- Tire pressure. Regularly check your tire pressure. You already know properly inflated tires increase fuel economy. But they will also ensure optimal surface contact with the road. An underinflated tire’s edges will collapse as they contact water, reducing traction and increasing the chances of hydroplaning or spinning out.
- Tread depth. Check your treads and look for wear patterns. While many people are familiar with the penny test (if Lin- coln’s head is not covered the tires need to be replaced) this translates to 2/32” of tread remaining. Unfortunately, this is not enough for wet or snowy conditions. Tests have shown that tires with 2/32” tread depth versus 4/32” take an addi- tional 100’ to stop in wet conditions. You can use a quarter to check for 4/32” (if Washington’s head is not covered consider new tires for wet conditions.) And under snowy conditions 6/32” is a minimum.
- Tire weather rating. If you are not sure if your tires are rated for snow take a look at your sidewall. Tires with an “M + S” on them are rated for mud and snow. Even these are not consid- ered ideal severe weather tires. Another symbol, a snowflake in an outline of a mountain, identifies a tire rated for severe winter weather conditions. What about all-season tires? A tire professional would tell you that they are like using a Swiss Army knife instead of selecting the proper tool from a tool- box. All-season tires can be used for different conditions but will not guarantee winter snow or ice traction.
- Electronic stability control. Electronic stability control (ESC) is a technology that detects and minimizes skids. ESC helps prevent loss of control but does not improve a vehicle’s cornering performance. The system works by automatically applying the brakes to help “steer” the vehicle where the driver intended to go before to the loss of control. Braking is automatically applied to individual wheels, such as the outer front wheel to counter oversteer or the inner rear wheel to counter understeer. Some systems reduce engine power until control is regained. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one-third of fatal accidents could have been precented by the technology If your car does not have ESC you should consider replacing it with one that does. And you should never turn your ESC off. The widespread implementation of ESC is in part due to rollover litigation and defective design lawsuits brought by trial lawyers. You can read more about how trial lawyers and their pursuit of justice for their clients have improved vehicle design and safety systems by going to: http://bit.ly/fSE8rt.
- Bridges freeze before road surfaces. If you’ve ever lived in cold country, you’ve seen this phrase. Even if the tempera- ture has not reached freezing, wind chill and pockets of cold air can turn overpasses into hidden black ice hazards. When temperatures reach 40o F or below, exercise caution as you approach bridges and overpasses. A good hint if you aren’t in the habit of taking outdoor temperatures while driving: If the weather report says “frost advisory” you should be on the lookout.
The last two tips are not new and no surprise. But we feel they are so important they should be emphasized.
- Keep your distance. By this we mean don’t tailgate or cut in front of vehicles. We had the recent experience of driving the I-5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles in the midst of holiday traffic. We watched as the two lanes in either direction turned into a version of right-lane chicken. Car drivers, anxious to get ahead in thick traffic, would cut to the right, directly in front of big rigs, shoot past as many cars as they could, and then cut left as they approached the next big rig. The result? A freeway that alternated between 80 mph and a standstill, with much heart-jolting slamming on the brakes in between. And if you glanced at the traffic reports, the numbers of accidents rose accordingly. Your best bet under any circumstance? While you may end up leaving room for people to cut in front of you and you may take a few extra minutes getting to your destination, keep your distance. Getting there alive beats never getting there at all.
- Slow down. his is essential in wet and icy weather. But it remains true throughout the year. The time it takes to perceive and react to a hazard remains constant. The faster you go, the less time you have to respond. A big rig pulls out in front of you. A child darts out from between two cars. One of your tires blows. Today’s cars can give you the false impression that the smooth ride, engine size, braking and technology will overcome perception-and-reaction timing. This thinking can lead to dangerous overconfidence.
Sometimes even when you do everything right a tragedy can still occur. This can happen even if you are a professional driver yourself. Tim Tietjen recently resolved a case where he obtained an $8 million resolution for a truck driver who was injured when another truck on the highway was blown into his lane due to high winds. The firm regularly helps individuals and lawyers with traumatic cases stemming from big rig incidents. These events are not limited to vehicles. John Feder is currently pursuing a case where a cyclist was killed by a big rig—the third cyclist killed by that particular driver while in the same company’s employ (http://bit.ly/fba45x).
For more information about this article or the handling of these types of incidents, please give us a call at (415) 940-7176.