It promises to be a nasty driving week with predicted severe storm, blizzard, high wind, driving rain and even tornado warnings throughout many areas of the U.S. Truckers should be aware of potential hazardous driving conditions and follow driving and safety tips to keep them safe and warm in the wake of the storms.
Winter Storm Kayla will bring heavy snow and strong winds to parts of the Plains and Midwest this week, leading to major traffic disruptions. Blizzard watches have been issued for eastern Nebraska, southeast South Dakota, northern, central, and western Iowa and southern Minnesota, including Omaha, Nebraska, Des Moines, Iowa and Rochester, Minnesota. The National Weather Service has also placed states from the Southwest into the western Great Lakes under winter storm warnings, watches and advisories.
Sustained winds may reach 25 to 40 mph with gusts over 50 mph over parts of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Nebraska, western and central Iowa and southern Minnesota Tuesday into Tuesday night, perhaps lingering into Wednesday. The combination of snow and wind may result in blizzard or near-blizzard conditions, at times, in these areas.
Expect travel to become increasingly difficult, if not impossible in the Rockies and High Plains today, and in areas from the Missouri Valley to the Upper Mississippi Valley Tuesday and Tuesday night.
Roads, including stretches of Interstates 29, 35, 70, 80, and 90, may be forced to close for some time in areas with blizzard conditions. And a severe weather outbreak may occur on the warm side of Winter Storm Kayla over parts of the South and Ohio Valley where there is the threat of severe thunderstorms.
Tuesday into early Wednesday, snow is expected to spread into the northern Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Valley. Kayla then will move swiftly to the northeast through midweek with precipitation tapering off to snow showers across parts of the Great Lakes by Wednesday.
A significant storm is also taking shape in the Mississippi Valley and Deep South brings the threat of severe thunderstorms on Tuesday with the potential for some of them to turn severe in over several states, spanning from southern Illinois and Indiana to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, according to AccuWeather.com.
The strongest thunderstorms will have the potential to kick up a few tornadoes as well as damaging wind gusts in excess of 60 mph that could topple trees and bring down power lines.
The main round of severe weather from these storms will come on Tuesday, with damaging winds, heavy rain, and isolated tornadoes all expected threats. The area at greatest risk for the outbreak of severe weather lies in between Little Rock and Nashville Tuesday afternoon and early evening, including Memphis, TN, and Jackson, MS.
Strong to severe thunderstorms could also hit around Little Rock midday Tuesday and may threaten areas northward to St. Louis and southward to New Orleans.
The main threat will likely come with a squall line, which will sweep across this area packing damaging winds and bursts of very heavy rainfall. There can be quick spin-ups of tornadoes within this line of thunderstorms, meteorologists predict.
The burst of rain in a short amount of time could lead to some street flooding, forcing detours on motorists and extended travel time. Those traveling on Interstates 10, 20, 40, 55, and 59 will have to battle blinding downpours.
The line of storms will push eastward through Tuesday night, turning into a mainly damaging wind threat, with isolated tornado threats. Louisville, KY; Nashville, TN; Birmingham, AL; and Mobile, AL will be in the path.
While the bulk of the energy with this storm system will head north into Canada Wednesday, there will still be a threat for flooding downpours and strong wind gusts with storms across the Southeast. Isolated severe thunderstorms will be possible from Raleigh, NC, to Tampa, FL.
Even with weeklong advanced warnings, many truckers were apparently unprepared for the blizzard in the Northeast the weekend before last. But despite early warnings from authorities to stay off the road, some drivers (mostly truckers) took their chances and were caught out in the storm.
Dozens of drivers were stranded on the Pennsylvania Turnpike overnight after getting caught the historic snowstorm blanketing the East Coast from Washington to New York. The National Guard was sent out to help local police clear roadways. Another estimated 150 to 200 commercial vehicles were stranded on Interstate 77 northbound in Charleston, WV, due to the winter storm.
Whether these truckers were unaware of hazardous driving conditions, foolhardy or under pressure to drive by dispatchers, the results were the same: They were stuck in the snow overnight in frigid conditions. Following is information you need to know on how to prevent winter driving disasters.
Your Right to Refuse to Drive
At times, commercial drivers will face the decision of whether or not it is safe to drive. Of course, the driver’s decision may differ from his dispatcher’s decision. When this conflict arises it is generally the driver’s decision that will legally control who is right and who is wrong, says Paul O. Taylor, an attorney with the Truckers Justice in an article written for the Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
He cites the United States Code of Federal Regulations [49 C.F.R. §392.14] that state, in part:
Hazardous conditions; extreme caution. Extreme caution in the operation of a commercial motor vehicle shall be exercised when hazardous conditions, such as those caused by snow, ice, sleet, fog, mist, rain, dust, or smoke, adversely affect visibility or traction. Speed shall be reduced when such conditions exist. If conditions become sufficiently dangerous, the operation of the commercial motor vehicle shall be discontinued and shall not be resumed until the commercial motor vehicle can be safely operated.
However, according to Taylor, this regulation does not provide a clear test for when a driver can discontinue operations due to bad weather.
The Surface Transportation Assistance Act prohibits an employer from disciplining or firing a commercial driver because that driver refuses to drive a commercial motor vehicle on the highways in violation of Federal safety regulations. The STAA also prohibits an employer from disciplining or firing a commercial driver because that driver refuses to operate a commercial vehicle when he has a “reasonable apprehension” of serious injury to himself or the public because of the vehicle’s unsafe condition.
When You Can Refuse To Drive
Taylor says by studying cases involving drivers who were fired for refusing to drive “we can discern several rules about when a driver can refuse to drive due to adverse weather conditions.”
• A driver may refuse to start work if the weather is sufficiently hazardous at or near the time he is scheduled to begin as to make it unsafe to operate a commercial vehicle on the highways.
• A driver cannot speculate unreasonably into the future regarding what the road conditions will be beyond a few hours.
• A refusal to drive due to adverse road conditions must be reasonable. The refusal should be based on the driver’s personal observations, weather reports from the radio and television, calls to the Department of Transportation or Highway Patrol, if possible, and information received from other drivers if such information is available.
• Additionally, the driver should be able to articulate for a court the precise facts that led him to believe that it would have been unsafe for him to operate a commercial vehicle on the highways.
If an employer illegally fires or disciplines a driver for refusing to drive a commercial vehicle in dangerous weather, the driver can seek relief under the STAA, Taylor says. A driver must file a complaint with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration within 180 days after he receives notice of the illegal discipline. OSHA will investigate a complaint filed under the STAA and thereafter issue a decision. If any party objects within 30 days to OSHA’s decision, the case will be assigned to an Administrative Law Judge for consideration. The STAA provides broad relief to an employee who is successful in proving that he was illegally disciplined or fired. A successful claimant is entitled to reinstatement, expunging of his work record, back pay, other damages, attorney fees and legal costs.
“Ultimately, the professional truck driver is the best judge of whether road conditions are so hazardous that he should not drive.” Taylor concludes. “He must act reasonably under the circumstances. If he acts reasonably in refusing a to drive due to dangerous weather conditions, and clearly conveys his reasons for refusing to drive to his employer, then the employer may not legally fire or discipline him for refusing to drive because of hazardous road conditions.”
Winter Weather Driving Tips
Winter demands heightened awareness and driving skills; and the ice, snow, wind and cold test each driver’s professionalism. Keep in mind these defensive driving tips taken from Schneider National’s 68-page Winter Survival Guide for drivers:
Visibility – Watch for brake lights on the vehicles ahead of you.
• Make sure your lights are on and working.
• Clean the ice and snow off mirrors, windows, lights and reflective tape.
• Use your air conditioner to help keep windows defrosted. Conditioned air is dry air.
• Watch the cloud of powdered snow surrounding your unit. There may be a car hidden in it.
• Look out for other vehicles whose only means of visibility is a 3”x3” area scraped off the windshield.
• See and be seen. Be aware of your surroundings. Look ahead, to the sides and rear.
Roadway – Watch for glazed conditions and slow down for the following:
• Be extra cautious on entrance and exit ramps. A sharp turn on a slippery road means double trouble.
• Be aware of bridges. Their surfaces freeze first and can be more slippery than the roadway itself.
• Intersections can be very icy, so start braking early for stop signs and red lights.
• Allow for the wind. Be ready for it in large open areas or when you come out from behind a hill, tunnel or an overpass. Be especially cautious with an empty trailer.
• Don’t “fall” for roads that are rain covered. Keep your speed down to maintain traction and stay off cruise control. If your wipers are on, the cruise should be off. Increase your following distance to be able to react to other vehicles getting into trouble ahead of you.
Traffic – The general driving public is not ready for winter storms. Be especially careful when you are in an area that is being hit with its first storm of the season.
• Keep in mind the importance of a good following distance (7-14 seconds) or more and your ability to recognize what the other driver might do.
Traction – Starting, stopping and steering all require traction.
• Don’t drive in the ruts of other vehicles. Their spinning wheels have probably packed the snow into ice.
• Accelerate/decelerate carefully and gradually. Remember that the tractor must pull the trailer. If the pavement is slick, the conditions are ripe for a jackknife.
• Slow down. Speed decreases traction. Slowing will increase your traction.
• Turn the engine brake off when on wet, icy or snow covered roads, when approaching bridges, on-ramps or exit ramps.
Trip Planning is Key
Trip planning is the key to safe and stress free winter truck driving, according to Jim Pitman, Temperature Control Fleet Manager with Gordon Trucking. And a big part of trip planning in the winter is monitoring the weather, he says. “There are many sources for weather: the XM radio, the Weather Channel (usually on at the truck stops), the Internet (from our Smartphone or Wi-Fi), 511 from the not-so-smart phones, and our old friend – the robotic voice of NOAA weather. Lastly, there is the old school method of predicting the weather – using the CB to get information about what the conditions are ahead.”
“Take out your map, your library of safe places to park, and the weather information you gathered and plan your trip. Plan it so that you are going over the passes when the snow has melted (or at least after the plows have had a chance to work the road a bit). In bad weather, calculate your speed at 25mph – if you do better than that great. If you overestimate your speed you may run out of your driving hours or hit your 14 before you can get to a safe place, Pitman adds.” Remember that, he notes, the ‘extra two hours of driving for unforeseen traffic or weather’ only applies if it is unforeseen – “you cannot tell DOT that you did not see the winter storm coming when it has been broadcast by every news report and DOT traffic sign.”
A proper Pre-Trip should be done rain or shine, but it becomes even more important in the winter, Pitman adds. “Make sure all lights work because half of them will be covered in road grime after 50 miles in the snow. Drain air from both the truck’s tanks and the trailer’s. Condensation in the airlines is the #1 cause of frozen brakes. Having a flat tire can be catastrophic when we pull off to the shoulder only to find that after we get the tire fixed we need to be winched out of the snow because the shoulder was really a mud hole covered by snow. A breakdown on the truck in sub-zero temperatures quickly turns into a life-threatening situation. Working in the breakdown department at GTI, I have had to tell more than a few drivers the bad news that no one – not even a tow – will come out to help them because the weather is bad.”
Check your equipment while en route – especially before going into the storm, Pitman warns. Also, do not forget to stop after going through a patch of bad weather to knock the snow and ice off the mud flaps, ICC bumper, chain hangers, etc. “I am reminded of a run to Hutchinson, KS with a student. We were running on snow and ice and it was 30 degrees out. We stopped at the scale in Kemmerer, WY, and before going into the scale house we knocked some snow off the truck and trailer. Big blocks of ice came off the under carriage of the trailer. When we went in the scale the DOT officer was impressed and told us a story about how, only a week before, a car’s front end and windshield were damaged by a block of ice coming off the trailer and ricocheting off the tandems of the truck.”
Know Your Storms
The Center for Disease Control says it’s important to know what winter storm warning terms mean:
Winter Weather Advisory: Expect winter weather condition (e.g., accumulation of snow, freezing rain, and sleet) that could cause severe inconvenience and life-threatening hazards.
Frost/Freeze Warning: Expect below-freezing temperatures.
Winter Storm Watch: Be alert; a storm is likely.
Winter Storm Warning: Take action, the storm is in or entering the area.
Blizzard Warning: Seek refuge immediately! Snow and strong winds, near-zero visibility, deep snowdrifts, and life-threatening wind chill.