Drivers need to get the message about mountain pass driving

The grade is out for our first real winter weather driving weekend across the passes, and we’re giving drivers a “D.”

I would have given drivers an “F,” but this was the first weather weekend of the year, so I cut you some slack.

It was less than two weeks ago when I begged everyone to get their cars ready and to follow the warning signs and restrictions when they arrived, as they did last weekend, but apparently no one was listening.

And we were left with closed passes and long delays, primarily because of driver behavior. “A majority of the closures, sadly, what we saw this weekend were due to drivers not being prepared, not following traction or chain requirements, spin-outs, driving under the influence or simply driving way too fast for conditions,” the Washington Department of Transportation‘s Tina Werner said.

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The passes would have been in much better shape if drivers had planned ahead or at least followed those requirements.

The calculus for closures, like we saw last weekend, can be quite simple. One car spins out. Another car slows to avoid it. That car loses traction and spins out. Maybe a truck then slows and spins out to avoid the first two and it cascades from there.

“It really just takes one person to close down a highway or a mountain pass for all of us,” Werner said.

So here’s what I am going to do. I’m going to throw this test out and let you take it again when we have similar weather and re-grade.

Study guide item one. Slow down and don’t be overconfident in your skills or in your four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicle.

“We need everyone to slow down, increase your following distance, to follow those traction and chain requirements,” Werner said.

Item two is more of a lab requirement. Try putting on your chains at home in the driveway. It’s good practice. You don’t want the first time to put on chains when you’re stuck on the side of I-90 in a blizzard.

Item three is simple. Don’t crowd the plows. “Be patient and please stay back,” Werner says. Stay a few hundred feet behind plows and trucks, and if you want to pass them, be sure you have two open lanes to do so. These trucks have blind spots on all sides.

And please keep extra warm items, food, and water with you when crossing the passes. Some drivers reported being stuck on I-90 for more than an hour before being able to turn around or get off the road. You’ll want that stuff with you.

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Check your tires again. Make sure they are winter ready. Make sure your wipers are good and your wiper fluid is full.

It’s hard enough to keep the passes open when we get the record snow that we have had so far, 34 inches since Oct. 26 at Snoqualmie Pass, when drivers are prepared. When drivers are not, we get what we did last weekend.

We have time to study. Let’s hope we ace the next test.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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