Kemmeter Column: Trips in snow, ice aren’t fun
By GENE KEMMETER
Winter is here, and that brings out something that is familiar with most Wisconsin residents – driving in adverse conditions of snow and ice.
These conditions came forth in the last month on two trips to the state’s largest city, both for scheduled airline flights.
Thursday, Dec. 23, started with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark with snow and freezing rain predicted north of Stevens Point later in the morning, with a chance of freezing rain.
The weather looked favorable as the vehicle was removed from the garage for the trip. Then it started misting, which changed to thin ice on the cold surfaces of the pavement and snow. By the time the trip began minutes later, the mist had changed to drizzle, icing up the windshield within a block to scrape the ice off.
The trip continued with the defrost controls at maximum, and traffic moved cautiously, traveling at speeds below the limit and then maintaining speeds of 35 to 40 miles per hour (mph) on the highway as the drizzle changed to freezing rain.
Approaching Amherst, an interchange offered a safe location to pull off the road and join a semi-tractor in scraping the ice from the headlights and windshield wipers, as well as the edges of the windshield so the wipers wouldn’t try to jam more ice there. Soon another vehicle joined the group, followed by a fourth before the ice was removed to permit travel again.
The road conditions began improving as county highway trucks applied salt to the pavement, and traffic began moving at 50 mph. By the time Highway 45 joined Highway 10, roads were clear and traffic began moving at normal speeds.
Less than two weeks later, Jan. 5, another snowstorm hit overnight, with the weather forecast indicating that snow would stop shortly after noon, giving time for workers to clear the roads and treat them.
Strong winds continued throughout the day and swirled the snow around as daylight hours changed to darkness. Falling temperatures precluded salting activities, and the gusting winds swirled the snow around, limiting visibility and making roads slippery.
Those road conditions left highway traffic traveling safely at between 50 and 60 mph on east-west roads and 30 and 40 mph on north-south roads, as conditions continued southward beyond the predicted range of the storm, in fact all the way to the Milwaukee urban area. The weather situation was reflected in the minimal number of vehicles on the road.
The normal 2-1/2-hour trip took more than three hours to complete, about the same as decades ago before the four-lane and six-lane roads along the route were constructed. Surprisingly, during the entire trip, there were no vehicles in the ditch or signs of accidents along the route, indicating those who were traveling were cautious and driving safely.
A trip to Minneapolis in slightly better conditions two decades ago led to a count of more than 75 vehicles in the ditches, most of them in the Minnesota area, where slippery stretches were reality.
Driving in those snowy conditions isn’t recommended, but people often feel the trip is extremely necessary, so they need to follow safety recommendations, primarily by driving slowly, at a speed that conditions warrant and to leave plenty of time to allow a break.
A number of vehicles passed slower-moving vehicles on the previously described trips only to be passed by those they had passed earlier during a journey. Leading a convoy apparently made the trip a little too treacherous. The driver of one high-profile delivery truck used the emergency flashers of that truck to alert other drivers of his slow-moving vehicle which was traveling about 30 mph.
The trips were definitely white-knuckled affairs, but were split between two drivers which reduced the stress and allowed for breaks.
The second trip also provided a surprise to nerdy mileage aficionados. Newer vehicles automatically compute the miles per gallon of gas on trips, and the data showed the vehicle averaged 30.8 miles per gallon without the use of cruise control. Obviously, the white-knuckled driving didn’t lead to toe-tapping the gas pedal.