Our Opinion: It's the time of the season for driving safely
It's official: Winter is here.
How do we know? Maybe it's because all of the sudden, it's December — the last month of the year and the last month of this wild and woolly decade. Maybe it's the smattering of snowflakes that fell in the Tualatin Valley over the Thanksgiving weekend.
But really, we know it's winter when we have our first "bad road day" of the season.
Streets were slick for the morning commute this Monday, Dec. 2, thanks to a drizzly Sunday evening that gave way to clear skies Monday morning. In the icy conditions, several crashes were reported throughout the region, including in the Beaverton area.
So, yes, it's that time of year again.
We are blessed in this corner of the country with relatively mild winters. Every winter, the Midwest, the Mountain West and parts of the East Coast groan under the weight of a massive snowstorm or two, or three, or 10. We occasionally get socked with a bad winter storm, but a more typical winter day in Washington County sees high temperatures in the mid- to upper 40s, low temperatures in the mid- to upper 30s, and — more often than not — plenty of rain.
Still, it's far from uncommon for temperatures to dip below the freezing point, especially at night, and conditions like sleet, fog, freezing rain and gusty winds that can cause mayhem, even with temperatures above 32 degrees, certainly aren't unheard of either.
So, in some ways, our "relatively mild winters" can be deceptive. Many budget-conscious drivers here forgo snow tires during the winter months, unless they live at higher elevations or spend a lot of time driving through the Cascades or the Gorge. Some neglect to carry tire chains, which are cheaper but also more cumbersome. And, famously, many Portland-area drivers — including out here in the suburbs and even rural areas — never really learn to drive in icy conditions.
We're not here to offer a crash course on winter driving. You'll more often find thoughts on community events, local controversies and charitable causes on this page than you'll find tutoring materials. If you want to improve your winter driving skills, there are classes for that, including a helpful course at the Portland International Raceway.
But in broad outlines, we do want to encourage members of our community to be cautious. At this time of the year, it stays dark a little later into the morning and gets dark much earlier in the evening than we've seen for most of the year. Conditions, particularly in the morning, can be treacherous — especially on days like this Monday, when it was sunny and there was no trace of snow on the valley floor, but near-freezing temperatures and wet roads combined for a tricky commute. Patches of fog, and even smoke from burn piles, can limit visibility.
There's no situation when this is more dangerous than when there are cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians all sharing the same stretch of roadway at the same time — something that happens every day all over the Westside.
All vehicles, but especially very heavy vehicles like semi-trucks, may need more time and distance to stop when roads are slick. All vehicles, but especially lightweight vehicles with small contact patches like motorcycles and bicycles, are susceptible to skidding on wet or icy road surfaces. And pedestrians, when it's cold and they're bundled up, may be less peripherally aware than they are when they're not shivering and swaddled in hoodies or scarves or woolen caps.
It is incumbent upon every driver to respect not just the rules of the road, but the conditions of the road as well. Speed limits are limits, not required speeds. And even if you think you can handle doing 40 mph in a 40-mph speed zone when conditions are wet, icy, foggy, windy and/or dark, the driver in front of you may be more conservative with their speed. That doesn't mean you should ride their bumper to try to get them to drive faster. That means you should respect their caution and maintain a follow distance that allows you to safely brake to a stop if the vehicle in front of you suddenly stops.
Let's repeat that: Don't tailgate other drivers, especially when road conditions are poor.
That should seem obvious, but for some, it's easier said than done. The world doesn't slow down, much less stop, just because the roads are slick. You still have to get to work on time. You still have to get groceries, and pick your kids up from daycare, and take your cat to the veterinarian.
But just the way you need to leave a little extra distance between you and the vehicle in front of you when road conditions are bad, you should leave a little extra time for you to get from Point A to Point B — whether you're driving, biking, or taking the bus or MAX. More than fog, more than black ice, impatience is the greatest enemy of the winter traveler.
This is a time of year that calls for deliberation and thoughtfulness. Let's extend that beyond our gift-giving, charity work and holiday planning and take it to the streets as well.
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