Idiots' Biggest Winter Driving Mistakes in Colorado Mountains

When a winter storm like the one that's spent much of the last 24 hours dumping on Denver strikes, driving conditions can deteriorate quickly — which is why the majority of metro area school districts have instituted late starts for today, February 4.

Such dangers are magnified in the Colorado high country, where weather can truly become a life-or-death situation. Yet anyone who's traveled through the mountains in our state has seen drivers — perhaps recent transplants or maybe homegrown morons — who either don't understand the risks they're taking or are simply oblivious to the possibility of doing a Thelma and Louise off a cliff and taking you with them.

Because we don't have a death wish, we reached out for help to Skyler McKinley, director of public affairs for AAA Colorado, as well as a person with a keen eye for subpar driving behavior.

Continue to get ten pieces of very timely advice in McKinley's own words — so next time you're heading into the mountains, you won't strike terror into the heart of everyone around you.

Number 1: Stop acting like you're in a car ad!

"When I talk to friends about this who are mechanics or work in traffic safety, we all agree the worst thing that's happened to Colorado's high-country roads are Subaru commercials. They advertise constantly that they're the best in class for winter driving, and they are good cars. But the commercials all have people who are going at high speeds, kicking up powder and really hitting the gas and going quickly. That's true for Subaru, Jeep and any of these companies that make utilitarian vehicles, and when people see winter-driving conditions, they suddenly think they're a professional driver on a race course, taking corners way too fast instead of focusing on each phase of the turn. When you're taking a corner in those conditions, maintain a slow, steady speed and do one action at a time. You're not in NASCAR."

Number 2: Stop speeding!

"One of the biggest mistakes most drivers make when they're encountering winter driving conditions is just going too fast for conditions. That can lead to a loss of traction, an inability to brake in time, an inability to see the road in front of you with enough reaction time. No matter how many promises you see in commercials that your car can do whatever you throw at it, that's just not the case. You have to change your driving behavior when you're heading into the high country."

Number 3: Stop tailgating!

"The best rule of thumb is to be eight to twelve seconds behind the car in front of you for winter driving conditions in the mountains — and I actually try to give myself fifteen seconds. The reason for that is because in particularly treacherous cases, traffic tends to slow down. You want to have plenty of time to control a skid, and you never want to be in a position of braking when you go uphill. When you lose all your upward momentum, that's when you're inclined to slide, or your vehicle might actually go backwards. So you want to leave plenty of time to brake and come to a complete stop if the conditions require that — which is rarely the case. In general, you just need to slow down. That prevents you from losing control or getting stuck."

Number 4: Stop stomping on your pedals — any of them!

"When it comes to driving in these sorts of conditions, you don't want to do anything suddenly. If you speed up all of a sudden, your vehicle is going to jerk around, and that loss of consistency typically causes accidents or causes cars to get stuck. Like all things in life, slow and steady wins the race, and even if your vehicle handles the terrain well, if you decide to power up, that increases the likelihood you're going to have to brake if you encounter other vehicles going up the hill — and braking is the number-one cause of traffic. I understand the motivation, but consistency and momentum are going to get you up to and through the high country safely. And if you're going at speeds above 25 miles per hour, which is typical along I-70 and 285, and you see something you have to avoid on the roadway, steering is the preferred way to avoid a crash rather than slamming on the brakes. You can't always do that as a function of traffic, but if you're in a situation where you can steer to avoid a road obstacle or a crash, it's much safer and keeps traffic flowing."

Number 5: Stop changing lanes so often!

"Avoid unnecessary lane changes. I think folks used to driving in Denver want to move faster, so they move to the left or to the lane with the least amount of traffic. But in wintry conditions uphill or in mountainous terrain, doing that increases the likelihood you'll hit a piece of black ice between the lanes, where it's not being worn down, and you'll experience a loss of traction. Again, consistency keeps us all safer, and there's not that much of a speed differential when you're changing lanes. You're probably going to go the same rate as everybody else no matter what lane you're in if there are winter driving conditions. We know where the ice is — it's between the lanes — and you're going to cause other motorists to react differently if you keep going back and forth, as opposed to an orderly commute upward with everybody staying in their lanes.

Number 6: Stop treating your wipers like they'll last forever!

"Extremes in temperatures and moisture can do a number on your wipers — and the best advice in Colorado is to replace them every six months. They're cheaper than you think and you can swap them out yourself or have somebody help you with it. Wipers will always tell you when they're going bad, and they're probably going to do it during your regular commute. If you hear squeaking and see them jumping, that means they're going to be doubly bad in winter driving conditions. A wiper isn't a convenience tool. It's a safety tool, and it's the cheapest safety tool for motorists to keep operational."

Number 7: Stop thinking that "all-season" tires are good enough!

"This is a controversial opinion, but I stand by it: If you live in Colorado, there's no such thing as all-season tires. They're only all-season tires in places that don't have seasons. But we so frequently have winter conditions in the high country in Colorado that you're going to save money and time and hassle by investing in a dedicated set of snow tires that you swap out. Look for tires that have the mountain symbol designation. Some all-season tires are better in snow than others, and I know having snow tires creates some issues with storage and can be tricky for urban dwellers. But if you're going to be driving in the mountains a lot during the wintertime, it really makes a difference. It's not just the tread. It's the chemical composition of some of these tires. They're just much better at maintaining traction when temperatures drop."

Number 8: Stop and top off your tank!

"When you're heading to the high country this time of year, you always want to make sure you've got a full tank of gas. It's not empty when it's in the red. It's empty when it's half full. That's as low as you should go. You need to have adequate weight to help you get out of a stuck-motorist situation. We recommend carrying a sandbag or kitty litter to help you with traction, too — and if you don't have that, floor mats will also work. But if you're stuck in traffic on I-70, you're going to burn through gas quickly, and if you get stuck and you're waiting for AAA to come and rescue you, it can get cold really fast. There's a huge difference in temperature sitting in a car with the heater on and sitting in one when it's not, and if you're stranded, you'll want to run your vehicle to stay warm. And filling your tank helps psychologically, too. If you're worried about gas, that creates just another piece of anxiety that's going to interfere with your ability to focus on the roads."

Number 9: Stop and learn how to use your car properly!

"This sounds ludicrous, but a lot of people don't really know the kind of equipment their car has. The owner's manual will tell you if you've got anti-lock brakes, traction control and things like that, and if you don't know, you won't know what to do. Like if you put on their brakes and you feel pulsing, you don't know if they're working or not working. So if you regularly go into the high country, refresh yourself and learn how to activate or de-activate some of your technology. For example, if you turn traction control off, it stays off in some cars, so you might have done that months ago, and if you don't know how to turn it back on, it's not going to be there when you need it. And you should never use cruise control with slick road conditions. It's pretty good at setting speeds but pretty bad at identifying road conditions. It might add power at the wrong time and lead to you losing control or spinning out."

Number 10: Stop believing physics doesn't apply to you if you have an SUV!

"I drive a Jeep Wrangler, and it looks like it's really built for mountain roads. But I see a lot of those cars in ditches because folks who buy them think they can handle winter conditions. That's true to an extent, but four-wheel drive doesn't mean four-wheel stop. If you have a driver really power into treacherous terrain and they're going too fast for the conditions, they can get into trouble even if they have a winter assault vehicle. You have to be doubly mindful of speed, because these vehicles make it easier to go fast — but they're not easier to stop."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts