As the winter months and wet weather approach, taking precautions on the roadways could prove to be lifesaving.
In Santa Cruz County — particularly in the densely forested sections of the San Lorenzo Valley and unincorporated areas outside Scotts Valley — the rainy season usually means slippery roads, fallen branches and debris in the roadway, and occasionally black ice.
Those hazards can be deadly when combined with speed, bald tires, and abrupt changes in acceleration or maneuvering.
Officer Sarah Jackson, of the California Highway Patrol, said speed is a factor is accidents and motorists need to be aware of the weather and road conditions – and modify speeds accordingly.
“The most important thing is to slow down,” she said. “If you start to feel yourself hydroplane at all, that means you’re going too fast.”
When the roads get slippery, Jackson said, motorists should take a gentle approach to avoid losing control:
n Avoid rapid acceleration
n Apply and release brakes gradually
n Exercise caution around all turns and curves
Jackson said that the most important factor in preventing a weather-related traffic incident was proper vehicle maintenance — particularly with the tires.
“We’ve had some really serious injuries and fatalities that could have been prevented had the vehicle been maintained properly,” Jackson said. “The ideal is to have the maximum amount of tread all around — you want to maintain contact with the roadway.”
According to the California Vehicle Code, any vehicle on the road is required to have no less than 1/32 of an inch of tread on its tires to be considered street-legal.
“Your tread depth is very important,” Jackson said.
She also cautioned motorists to be aware of the possibility of black ice on the roadways, particularly on bridges, and in shady areas on cold mornings.
“Bridges get cold air above and beneath,” said Jackson, explaining that those conditions allow for moisture on bridges to freeze more easily than other stretches.
Black ice normally melts quickly once sunlight hits it, but in parts of Santa Cruz County where the roadway is under the forest canopy, the ice can last well into the morning.
“A lot of the time our roads are a little bit damp,” Jackson said. “When you’re driving in the mountain areas in the morning, beware of the shadows.”
Should you hit black ice, or begin hydroplaning, Jackson said that the important thing to do is to not make any sudden movements.
“No sudden moves — take your foot gently off the gas, and don’t slam on the brakes,” she said. “If you’ve lost traction that means you were going too fast for the conditions.”
According to Juan Guerrero, a sales associate at Skip’s Tire and Auto Center, a vehicle’s tire tread level can be checked by looking at the grooves in the tread and feeling for the wear bar, which is an elevated piece of rubber.
If the tread is at the same level as the wear bar — it’s probably time for new tires, he said.
“The more tread the better,” Guerrero said. “It reduces risk of hydroplaning.”
During the winter months, he said, winter tires have treads specifically designed for slick roadways and can help get a more solid grip on the asphalt.
“That way that it bites into the slick road,” Guerrero said. “Once that back end comes around you can’t steer out of it.”
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