October is a month of transition. In southern areas of the U.S., it’s almost a continuation of the summer, with balmy temperatures and plenty of green foliage still visible. Farther north, the leaves have already turned and temperatures have dropped, sometimes to freezing or below. At higher altitudes, some days look a lot like winter.
Experienced drivers know this is a time to be prepared for anything weather-wise. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself and your truck now for the severe weather to come.
Make sure you carry fuel additive along, for two important reasons. As winter approaches, truck stops start selling diesel fuel that is treated for cold weather, but vendors in different parts of the country may stock winter fuels at different times. It’s possible to fill up with fuel that isn’t treated and then drive into a colder part of the country where treated fuel is needed. Ask the vendor where you buy fuel if it’s been treated. If not, adding a gallon of quality fuel treatment additive is a good idea.
The second reason to carry fuel treatment is for emergency use. The paraffin in diesel fuel can settle at colder temperatures, especially if the truck isn’t running for long periods. If that happens, fuel filters can clog quickly, shutting down your truck. When this happens, it’ll take a new fuel filter and anti-icing fuel additive to get running again. Quality products, such as Howes Diesel Defender or Power Service Fuel Supplement, can quickly dissolve gelled fuel and remove water from tanks and lines.
About those fuel filters … every driver should carry filters and know how to change them. Some drivers assume checking and changing filters is the mechanic’s job and that drivers shouldn’t be responsible for maintenance. They’re missing the point. A clogged filter leaves you stranded until help arrives. When the weather is severe, service companies are at their busiest, and you may wait for hours for a service call in a truck that won’t run or produce heat.
Washer fluid is another important item to carry in winter. Road spray can contain pollutants from the road surface, in addition to de-icing chemicals used on the highway. As droplets dry on your truck’s heated windshield and mirrors, they leave behind a film that cuts visibility. A quality windshield washing fluid cuts through the film. A spray bottle in the cab works well for cleaning mirrors when the truck is parked; a small squeegee makes cleaning mirrors a quick spay and swipe.
Clothing is another consideration for drivers when the weather cools. A good jacket, hat, gloves and warm footwear should be in every truck. When breakdowns occur, you may be out of the cab for extended periods, exposed to the cold. Be prepared.
Driving during transitional periods of the year can be treacherous because conditions can change so rapidly. Temperatures drop when the sun goes down, turning wet roads into icy skid pads. While the warm ground under the road can keep ice from forming on the surface, bridges and overpasses can freeze.
When encountering an area you suspect is icy, it’s best to make any maneuvers you need to before you actually hit the surface. If you need to slow down, use your brakes and/or downshift before you hit the icy patch.
Once you’re on the ice, any move you make could result in loss of control, including a jackknife. The best thing is to do nothing — don’t accelerate, brake or move the steering wheel — until you’re safely across the ice and traction is resumed. If your truck is equipped with an auto-shift transmission, you might need to select a gear to hold the transmission in while you cross a slippery area so that it doesn’t automatically downshift at the worst possible moment.
In winter months, some western states require that you carry enough snow chains to equip your vehicle, even if you never use them. You may never need those chains, but a Department of Transportation (DOT) inspector may look for them — and you could be fined for not having them. In Colorado, for example, the fine is $50 for not having chains and $500, plus an administrative surcharge, if you don’t use them when required. If you fail to use chains and end up blocking the highway, the fine is $1,000.
It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the weather, but in winter it’s crucial. Every trip plan should include a review of the most recent weather reports. If inclement weather is expected, build extra time into the trip to allow for slower driving speeds and traffic delays caused by accidents or other weather-related occurrences.
Whenever rain is expected and the temperature is dropping, expect to encounter freezing rain. Ice can build up on road surfaces almost imperceptibly until a wet road becomes a sheet of ice. Watch for ice buildup on mirror brackets, antennas and other vehicle parts. Even if you can’t see ice, there are a couple of tricks you can use to confirm its presence. Watch for unusual movement of antennas, whether yours or those on another vehicle. Normally, antennas are pushed back in the windstream, but when ice builds up on them, the aerodynamics are changed. If you see antennas moving from side to side or in a circular motion, it’s a sign that ice is accumulating on them.
It can be difficult to tell if a road is wet or ice-covered, since they can appear the same. A sure way to tell is to watch for road spray from the wheels of passing vehicles, especially trucks. If there’s no spray, the water on the road surface is frozen.
Finally, always adjust your speed to weather conditions. When visibility or traction, or both are impacted, slow down. Consider altering your schedule so that you are resting when the weather is at its worst and driving when roads are cleared. When roads are too icy to drive on, the best policy is to find a safe parking place and wait it out. Getting home safely is worth more than any load.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.