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Are You Ready?



This article is by no means intended to "teach" a person how to drive a tractor/trailer in slick road conditions!  Make the most of the knowledge your instructors have at your school.  This article is intended as an Overview on Winter Driving only.


Don't we all just love wintertime?  Maybe you do and I am sure the skiers of the world do, but I do not.  I've grown up in cold winters and to tell you the truth, the snow up to my neck lost all it's charm after age 8.


So now as adults we have to drive in it... The four-wheeler seems like enough to handle sometimes, but now 18 wheels?  It's enough to almost make you want to panic.... but don't.  Those 18 wheels, especially when there's 40,000+ pounds atop them, have a remarkable amount of traction.  That's the good news.  Naturally the bad news follows and it is this:  since you now have a "pivot point" you are at a much higher risk of JACKKNIFE.  I don't want to scare you, but I do want you to understand a couple easy dynamics behind it... it may save your life.


What makes a vehicle slide on slick pavement?   

Wheels that are not rolling are sliding.  Wheels that are sliding are often referred to as "locked up".  Any "locked up" wheel will go faster than a wheel that is rolling.  As a result, any locked up wheel will think it needs to go first.... it will try to lead the others.  With a tractor/trailer, if trailer wheels "lock up", the trailer will attempt to come around the tractor.  This is called a "trailer jackknife".  On the other hand, if tractor wheels lock up, they will attempt to come around and this is called a "tractor jackknife".


A skid is the "birth" of a jackknife -- if allowed to proceed, it will turn into a jackknife.  If you catch it in time, it may not.  It is said that by the time the tractor and trailer are at a 15°  angle to one another, the chances of regaining control are slim to none. The picture of the blue truck is quite a bit sharper than 15° .


What are some of the causes of skids?                 top


>>Over Braking  Hitting the brakes too hard for the conditions or having brakes that are out of adjustment.


>>Over Turning  Turning the wheel too sharply for the conditions.


>>Over Accelerating  Accelerating too quickly for the conditions or might also be downshifting from (overly) high RPM's.


What to do when I feel it starting to slide?            top

1.  Pray

2.  Scream


Just kidding.  Really, this winter stuff is too scary to fool I'm sorry.  Just trying to keep it light with all this gloom and doom talk...


You should:                                                                top


*Get off the throttle or the brake, whichever you were on.




*Find a place ahead of you where you want to come out of this -- where you want to end up -- and keep your eyeballs there.  Don't look at the wheel or anything except for the focal point ahead of you.  Steer towards it. You'll steer the right way. 


No matter what you do, DON'T YOU DARE GIVE UP.  You may pull it out but you won't if you quit trying!!!!








What causes a Skid? You have to know if you hope to prevent a...



Jackknife  15°









Survival Gear


What extra gear should you be sure to have with you?




Weather Reports


Where to get them




Road Conditions


Recognizing Potentially Dangerous Road Conditions




Know Your Limitations


Is there such a thing as "too scared"?




Your Equipment


Fuel & Gelling


Cables & Chains



Frozen Brakes




Keys to Safe Winter Driving


Driving Tips




ABS Systems


How does ABS change the way you brake?




When it comes to winter, BEING PREPARED is especially crucial.


BE PREPARED BY Putting Together Extra Clothes and Survival Gear


You should pack some extra clothes and survival gear to keep in your truck.  There may be times you’ll be stuck on the road somewhere because the road gets shut down or an accident stops traffic.  Some basic items to make sure you have:

  • Extra Warm Clothes

  • Extra shoes

  • Extra blanket(s)

  • Snacks

  • Bottled water

  • Lighter

  • Candles

  • Matches

  • Flashlight

  • Scissors

  • Tissues

  • Ice scraper

  • Extra pair of gloves

  • Cigarettes

  • Canned food & an opener

  • Coffee can to melt snow

  • First Aid Kit

Think about what other items you absolutely couldn’t stand to be without for a long period of time.





BE PREPARED BY Getting Good Weather Reports! Sources for them:


  • Weather Band Radio - either buy one or buy a CB with it built in.  Your truck’s AM/FM radio may have a weather band.

  • Truck Stop TV  - in the winter, many truckstops have a television in the restaurant and/or driver’s lounge with nationwide weather updates 24 hours a day.

  • Internet  - There are many, many sites devoted to weather.

  • Calling the weather line for a particular state  - These phone numbers can be found in your Motor Carrier’s Atlas as well as on the State Contact List in this book..  If you can’t find a phone number that will give you the information you’re looking for, you can also try the Highway Patrol for that state.

  • Calling home - Ask your family to watch the Weather Channel or at least tune in to the news.  You may want to mention to them that you’re more interested in the national fronts than anything else. 

  • CB radio   Be careful about believing everything you hear on the CB because you’ll get a great deal of conflicting information.  Ask several drivers for weather reports for the same area.

You’ll be more interested in national weather fronts/trends and moving storm systems than local weather reports.  If you have a choice of 2 routes somewhere, the weather may be the deciding factor over which route you take.  You may not necessarily care what the weather in a certain region is doing right now – you will care about what it is expected to do when you’ll be there!





BE PREPARED BY Knowing How to Recognize A Potentially Dangerous Road Condition / Situation


Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the road is freezing up.  It may be raining, snowing, sleeting, etc but the temperature is hovering around 32 and you’re just not sure if you’re dealing with wet road or an icy one. 


  • Watch For Spray from other vehicles’ tires.  If SPRAY is coming up, chances are very good it is not freezing.  (But that doesn’t mean it can’t start.)  Look for spray coming up from your own tires, too.  It’s a reassuring thing to see!!

  • Watch Other Vehicles  Are they slip-sliding and fishtailing?  Are you starting to see cars in the ditch?  Are you seeing trucks rolled over in the ditch or on the on/off ramps?  These are strong indicators that the road is likely to be slicker than it appears.

  • Ice build-up on windshield, where wipers don’t cover indicates it is freezing.

  • Ice build up on CB antennas makes them bounce back and forth very fast.

  • Black Ice is scary stuff because it is so difficult to see.  Black Ice can accumulate anywhere but be especially careful after the sun goes down after a relatively warm day.  When the temperature drops below freezing after having a fair amount of melt-off during the day, new icy patches will form.

At the beginning of the winter, even around 32 degrees, it is not as likely that roadways will start to freeze over as soon as there’s precipitation.  This is because the ground is still warm from the summer.  As the winter progresses, the ground becomes colder and colder and will freeze up faster when precipitation falls. 





BE PREPARED BY Knowing Your Own Limitations


Are you scared to death?  Are you gripping the steering wheel so tight your knuckles are white and your hands are falling asleep?  GET OFF THE ROAD!  Some apprehension is a good thing; it makes your adrenaline pump – which can help make you more attentive and alert.  This can go too far, however, to being all-out panic and overwhelming fear.  If you get to this point, you’re better off at the truckstop, waiting it out a little while.  Only YOU can judge when it is safe to continue on when the roads have become bad.  Your load is always better delivered late than not delivered at all. 





BE PREPARED With Your Equipment


Chains/ Cables 


TheThere are “chain laws” in certain states that require a commercial motor vehicle to be equipped with traction devices only when the conditions demand it and there are yet others that stipulate that you must carry them during certain times of year, regardless of current road condition.  There are additional rules concerning which axles(s) must be chained and which type of traction device (cable or chain) may or must be used.


There are two kinds of traction devices: cable and chain.  Cables are pretty popular because they’re lighter, fit tighter and you can run faster.  Unfortunately, there are several states that dictate cables are not acceptable and you must have chains.


Many mountain passes have chain up areas and when road conditions warrant, you may not be allowed to cross a mountain pass unless you put chains on.  You’ll want to get a list of each state’s requirements concerning chains from your company. 

Be sure to check with your own safety department to be sure you have the required equipment for any given state. 


States that have some sort of chain law are:  CA, OR, WA, NV, CO, UT, MT, WY.





Diesel Fuel and Gelling


Diesel fuel is more or less oil.  It has problems and considerations that gasoline does not - such as gelling.  When the temperature gets colder, you must prepare for this fact.  You must also consider the regions you will run.  When it drops down into the single digits and below, and stays there for any length of time, gelling becomes a prime concern.   


Ask Your Company:


  • At what temperature they want you to buy and add additives to your fuel.

  • If you have fuel tank heaters

  • Where and how are you supposed to get the additives.

  • Is there any certain kind they want you to buy and how much should you put in.

Tips to Prevent Gelling:


  • Monitor the temperature - as well as the wind-chill factor closely.

  • Try to keep tanks as full as possible when very cold.  The more cold air that is in the tanks (because they’re not full) will increase the chances of gelling.

  • Beware leaving the truck turned off for any length of time when it’s very cold. 

  • Beware fuel purchased in the Deep South since they don’t have a need to blend their fuel.  If you bought fuel in the Deep South but are coming up north and it’s much colder, you could have a problem.

  • When the truck is running, the vibration helps prevent gelling.

Blended fuel is usually used throughout the winter months.  Blended fuel is a mixture of #1 and #2 diesel fuels and is less prone to gelling.  The “blend” is usually either 70% #2 diesel and 30% #1 or a 60/40 split.  Some truckstops don’t blend the fuel but they do add some sort of additive.  Any fuel desk person should be able to tell you what their blend is if you ask them.  




Frozen Brakes   


What Freezes?   The brake lining freezes to the brake drum.


Why?  If you set your brakes when they’re wet and it is cold (enough) outside, they may freeze.


How do you “unfreeze” them?  If you do have frozen brakes, you will have to break them loose.  First try backing up - quite often they’ll break free on their own.  If that doesn’t work you will have to “beat” on them with a hammer.  Try to hit at the linings in a sideways motion. 


How do you prevent it from happening?  When pulling into the truck stop after you’ve been driving on snowy and/or slushy roads, drive around just a bit with your foot over the brake slightly.  This can help dry them out.


In the winter especially, get into the habit that every time you leave a place, you look to see that all wheels are rolling.  You could have one locked up and if you don’t look, you may not know.




Keys to Safe Winter Driving


Easy Does It!!!   Everything you do while operating on slick surfaces should be done gently, slowly and easily.  Do not jerk the steering wheel.  Do not make rough downshifts from too high of an RPM.  Do not hit the brakes hard. 


Increase Following Distance    You must increase the distance in front of you dramatically in poor road conditions.  Even if you’re under control of your vehicle, many others are not.  If a car goes out of control in front of you, where will you go???


Buy An Indoor/Outdoor Thermometer that you can mount on your truck so you always know the outside temperature.  These are very popular among drivers, inexpensive and easy to find at nearly any medium + sized truck stop.  (About $16.00 and worth every penny)  Your truck may be equipped with this also.


Watch out for snow removal equipment – especially in the middle of the night.  They are typically extremely slow moving and a last minute lane change to avoid one could be very dangerous.


When the road is snow covered, try to get at least one side of your truck & trailer on a surface with some traction.  (The shoulder usually has better traction than the main part of the road.) 


You’ll fare better when you are loaded heavy when roads are slick because you have a great deal of traction...probably more than you think.


You may want to try putting your chains on in the summer so you’ll know how to do it when it has to be done in the winter.  In the middle of a snowstorm when it is in the single digits with blowing wind is not the ideal time to learn to put chains on for the first time!


Use your inter-axle differential when needed... it will give you extra traction.  Just DO NOT FORGET to flip it back OFF when it is no longer needed and DO NOT run more than about 30 mph with it ON!


Be especially careful to make smooth downshifts when the road is slick.  A poor downshift can throw (done from too high of RPM’s) you into a skid.


Be especially careful on ramps when the roads are slick or appear that they may become that way.  Ramps are the #1 accident spot for heavy trucks – especially in the winter. 


Be especially careful on bridges and overpasses when the temperature is hovering around freezing, no matter what time of year it is!  They will freeze first, since they have nothing under them. 

Do not leave your truck if you get stuck or caught in a blizzard!  Stay in it and wait. 


Do not use your Jake Brake or your Cruise Control when roads are slick. 







Also known as an “Anti Lock Braking System”, ABS has been included in more than half of all new cars and more than 80 percent of light-duty trucks sold in North America in 1995.  ABS was tried years ago with trucks but had many flaws.  All tractors manufactured after 1997 and trailers manufactured after 1999 must be equipped with anti lock brakes.  ABS is designed to prevent skidding and to help the driver maintain steering control during an emergency braking situation.  There are sensors at each wheel that distinguish when a wheel is about to “lock up”.  The ABS will then “release” and apply the brake repeatedly.  You might think of ABS as “computerized pumping” of the brakes.  It eliminates the need for the driver to pump the brakes.  The driver can feel some pulsation or increased resistance in the brake pedal when ABS has been engaged. It is important to keep your foot on the brake pedal and continue to apply firm pressure.  Many companies trade their trucks every 2-3 years for new ones so chances are you will drive an ABS equipped tractor.  On the other hand, trailers are not traded in nearly as often – on the average of 5-8 years.  It’s likely that you’ll have an ABS equipped tractor and non-ABS equipped trailer.  This significantly changes the way you brake.  The following is for reference only.  Be sure to ask your company exactly what your tractor/trailer is equipped with and how it is to be used.


If You Have:

Braking Method Should Be:



Normal, “old fashioned” braking.  Your tractor will not lock up if you “stand” on the brake pedal, but your trailer COULD.


Normal, “old fashioned” braking.  Your trailer will not lock up if you “stand” on the brake pedal, but your tractor COULD.

Tractor and Trailer BOTH have ABS.

“Stand” on the brake pedal.  Do not attempt to pump – the ABS will do this for you, much better and much faster than you could.


How do you know if you have ABS?  There should be a light on your tractor’s panel that lights up when you start the engine.  As long as this indicator lights up at start up, you have ABS and it is working properly.  If the ABS light lights up during normal driving – or at some time other than start up and remains lit, this indicates there may be a malfunction with the ABS.  This does NOT mean, however, that you do not have brakes!  It means only that you may have lost your ABS.  You should resort to braking as you would if you did not have ABS at all.  The trailer is required to have a light as well.  This resembles a turn signal but should say “ABS” on it and is located on the driver’s side of the trailer.  If the light comes on and remains lit, it indicates a problem with the ABS.  As above, this is not to say you have no brakes – it indicates that you may have a problem with the ABS and should brake as if you do not have ABS.  Make sure to get your truck and/or trailer into a shop as soon as you can to have such a problem fixed.




This article is an excerpt from "Driver's ABC's, Surviving the First Year," modified for the Web. 

This article may appear in more detail or in a different format in the book version. 

Copyright 2000-2007, Creative Curriculum FTTI, All Rights Reserved, no reprint without permission.





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