Driving in the snow a Lake Tahoe necessity


Photo Courtesy: Nevada DOT

Winter driving requires preparation. The Nevada Department of Transportation warns drivers to carry chains and practice safe techniques.

The beginning of winter is being warmly greeted by most Tahoe locals. The changing of seasons has brought along not only fresh powder, but the return of slippery roadways, long traffic delays, and nightmare situations when people are unaware of how to travel safely in winter conditions.

Depending on the severity of weather, traveling through winter conditions can be difficult, especially for those that don’t know the precautions beforehand.

“Unfortunately, there are more than 3,000 crashes every year across Nevada in wet, icy and snowy weather conditions,” Nevada Department of Transportation Public Information officer Meg Ragonese said. “Many of these crashes are due to driving or turning too fast for conditions. Motorists should not make the mistake of assuming that winter weather driving is the same as driving in clear weather conditions.”

With consideration that driving during winter months is vastly different than the normal daily commute, there are many steps on how to get prepared to drive in severe weather conditions. According to Ragonese, the first step to prepare for traveling in winter conditions is creating a “winter driving safety kit.” The first item in this safety kit of successful travel, should be tire chains.

While the state of Nevada does not hold formal chain check stop areas, law enforcement still requires all travelers to either carry chains or have snow tires on all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive vehicles during winter storm warnings. Nevada DOT also encourages travelers to practice putting tire chains on their vehicles and taking them off of their vehicles several times in a dry and safe location prior to driving through harsh weather conditions.

There are also safety precautions that come with the use of tire chains. According to an online blog published by Napa Automotive, if the road has clearly been plowed and salted, the driver should take tire chains off immediately. Driving with chains on paved roads can cause detrimental damage to a vehicle and the road itself. The blog also states that cars should only be driven 30 miles per hour with chains at most. Chains can break, and they aren’t cheap.

Drivers can find tire chains at most automotive stores and some gas stations, depending on the area. Most vehicles also have further information on what tire chains work for the car and how to install chains in the owner’s manual. Drivers are also informed to put tire chains on in designated areas along the highway being traveled—not in the middle of the road, even if traffic is at a stop. Specified chain installation areas are labeled throughout major highways in Northern California and Northern Nevada regions, and are normally located on the shoulders of roadways.

Other items suggested by NDOT to carry in a winter driving safety kit include a flashlight, tow strap, ice scraper, snow shovel, spare batteries, road flares, jumper cables, a small bag of sand (for wheel traction), additional winter clothing, a blanket, non-perishable foods, first-aid supplies, candles/matches/lighter, and a state map in the event of no cell-service or a winter detour.

Another step NDOT suggests prior to traveling is planning a route. Planning to pivot from original plans is essential when traveling through extreme weather conditions.

As of last winter, NDOT has put a permanent requirement in place that allows only 4-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles with snow tires and all vehicles with approved tire chains access to certain Tahoe roadways during chain requirements. Roadways that are subject to this chain requirement in the Tahoe area include; State Route 431, Mt. Rose Highway, Kingsbury Grade, and Highway 50 between Glenbrook and Carson City.

“This change is aimed at enhancing traffic mobility and safety on roughly 50 miles of mountainous state highway in the Tahoe area,” Ragonese said. “The restrictions help ensure all vehicles on the road are equipped with enhanced traction support for certain elements of winter driving.”

Of course, planning ahead and avoiding driving in dangerous conditions is always the best option, but what if traveling through inclement weather is absolutely mandatory? If it is, Nevada DOT and Cal Trans (California’s Department of Transportation) both have many tips for drivers to safely travel on snow-covered, icy roads.

Avoiding quick starts, stops, and fast turns is vital for being safe on the roads. With Tahoe being incredibly mountainous, almost all roads through various communities have curvature, so paying attention to speed and avoiding quick reactions during driving is essential for snow travel, including quick stops at traffic lights. If the light turns red from where you can visibly see it change, drivers should plan to slowly decelerate a vehicle to successfully stop, this is one of the only situations where “pumping your breaks” is a good thing. If a vehicle begins to skid, drivers should steer in the direction of the slide and gradually remove speed from the accelerator. This will allow the driver to regain control and avoid car accidents.

When traveling through winter weather, drivers should also keep a more than normal distance between surrounding vehicles. Riding another car’s tail during snow conditions is asking for an accident, and drivers should be more cautious of bridges, ramps, overpasses, and shaded areas—as they normally are the first to freeze, even if these roadways don’t look frozen from appearance.

Nevada DOT has also taken progressive measures towards creating a safer, more effective experience for travelers to Lake Tahoe communities.

“NDOT begins annual winter preparations in August by readying more than 80 snowplows and other pieces of snow and ice equipment for use in snow removal across northwestern Nevada,” Ragonese said. “Nearly 33,000 cubic yards of salt and sand and 260,000 gallons of salt brine have been stockpiled in the area, ready to be spread on winter roads for increased traction and safety.”

NDOT’s process to control snow covered roadways is constant throughout winter, and there is an extensive process to mitigate safe travel for locals and tourists alike.

“The sand is combined with salt and wetted with brine to create more dense sand that keeps roads ice-free at lower temperatures and will not as easily bounce off roadway surfaces,” Ragonese said. “NDOT sand trucks calibrate the amount of salt and sand, spreading the mixture on roadways with extreme precision and efficiency.”

Travelers should also give their vehicle’s tires a second look prior to expected winter travel. A large misconception by drivers traveling into the area is that all-season tires will work well in snow travel. According to an article published by Bridgestone Tire Company, all season tires can work for vehicles traveling through mild winter conditions, however they aren’t ideal for the extreme winter conditions that places such as Tahoe present.

“Think of all-season tires like tennis shoes,” the article said. “You can wear tennis shoes all year, but they aren’t ideal for all situations. It’d be much better to have flip flops on the beach in the summer and boots for the snow.”

The tread rubber, tread depth, and biting edges are the components that make winter/snow tires the best option for winter Tahoe travel. Also known as Mud and Snow tires, these tires are created for travel through traction in packed snow and mud conditions. If there is a mountain/snowflake symbol on the wall of tire wheels, these tires are rated for severe snow travel and have been measured to withstand slippery conditions, snow traction, and overall more control when traveling through colder temps.

Many drivers that travel regularly through winter conditions with all-wheel-drive vehicles also use paddle-shifters when necessary. When driving with an automatic vehicle on a steep uphill, drivers can also downshift with paddle shifters, allowing a vehicle to gain more control in a lower “gear.” Contrary, when traveling downhill, drivers can also engine brake, simply taking pressure off the accelerator and letting the vehicle slow down itself. This will allow more control through travel downhill or through busy traffic that comes to a quick stop in winter conditions.

Learning how to drive through severe weather conditions successfully is a skill that is learned over time; but once taught, will allow confidence when getting behind the wheel and allow for patience and safety when driving around Tahoe. What comes with great powder days spent on the mountain, often corresponds with dangerous driving conditions. Anyone driving through severe weather should be fully aware of road conditions, patient with the Deptartment of Transportation, and willing to change plans if necessary.

For further information on current road conditions, highway maps, and live highway cameras, visit: www.nvroads.com, call: 511 or dial 1-877-NV-ROADS outside of Nevada state.