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December 20, 2012

Emergency responders share driving tips

OTTUMWA — Police and fire personnel are out driving in every type of weather.

At the Ottumwa Fire Department, Captain Bryan Carnahan has spent more than 20 years driving fire engines in all kinds of weather conditions. The “tricks” their drivers use can benefit nearly any driver.

“The big thing is to slow down, and pay attention,” said Carnahan.

Do firefighters really drive that way?

“Yes, we do that. We can’t help people if we don’t get there.”

He said to be aware of side streets, too. Motorists coming down a hill to a stop sign on a side street may not start slowing down early enough, causing them to slide right past the stop sign and shoot out into oncoming traffic.

“Slow down,” he said, which is easier if you plan ahead. “Take your time, [that is], make sure you give yourself plenty of time to reach your destination.”

Don’t think you have to go as fast as the speed limit, either. Ottumwa Police Chief Jim Clark said officers can write tickets to motorists driving the posted speed limit — if weather conditions warrant a slower speed.

The roads department can only do so much to keep ice off the streets of the city and the county. So Clark said to plan a route that avoids steep hills, high congestion areas and bridges if possible.

Still, the Wapello County Engineer’s secondary roads department was just finishing attaching their snow plows to the trucks and heavy equipment around lunchtime on Wednesday.

On the other end of the property from the plows, a county equipment operator used an end loader to snag buckets of salt. He dumped the salt onto a mountain of dirt, then used the scoop shovel to mix the salt and sand together.

That mixture will go into the trucks for spreading on county roads. The City of Ottumwa Department of Public Works was also gearing up to do their part in making the roads safer. During previous winters, streets employees said there’s an order to the plowing, much of which revolves around emergency vehicles and access to Ottumwa Regional Health Center.

While both departments  have been commended in the past for the quality of their work, and despite the fact that motorists can usually avoid the steepest hills, there are still going to be slippery areas.

After slowing down was mentioned, both the firefighter and the police officer said the second secret to being safe on slippery roads is to pay attention.

Turn off the radio. Put the cell phone away, even if it’s a hands-free model. Driving is more mental than physical, Clark said, so don’t allow yourself to get distracted.

Yet before even starting the car, he said, give it a good mechanical inspection, or have your local garage do it for you.

“For winter driving,” said Doug Meixner, owner of Quincy Tire, “you want to do a battery test if you have any questions about the battery, like if it’s a couple years old.”

In fact, some mechanics will check a customer’s battery at no charge, he said, or have a coupon in the local paper for a free battery check.

“Check your antifreeze for strength and level,” he said, adding that most people can do it at home with a simple tester or have their garage do it for them. “We’re supposed to get cold and a lot of wind, so you don’t want to be [surprised].”

And despite various tales about the value of under- or over-inflating tires for snow, mud or ice, Meixner said to inflate them to the correct level as recommended by the manufacturer.

“It is [for] safety [that you] check the air pressure in the tires — so you’ve got good traction,” he said. “But it will also save wear on your tires and save you money on gas.”

Drivers should also check the blades on the car’s windshield wipers.

Which brings up one of Chief Clark’s points: Be sure to prepare your vehicle before you head out on a trip, long or short.

You don’t want to find yourself in an empty parking lot with a snow covered car and no ice scraper or snow brush. Go place one in your car now, he wrote on a list of additional tips.

For example, always keep the vehicle at least half full of gas.

“That’s a good idea,” agreed Meixner. “Then, if you’re stranded, you can at least run the heat for while.”

Just be sure to open the windows a crack. Even a small leak can cause carbon monoxide to seep into an unmoving car. And even a perfect exhaust system can get blocked by snow, he said.

The fire captain said it’s wise to bring an extra coat or maybe keep a blanket in the car where you can reach it, even if stranded. And for each trip, a bottle or two of water per person would be a good idea, depending on where you are traveling.

Try to travel during the day, said Clark, so visibility is (sometimes) better, and you’re more likely to get help during the day, too. To help other drivers see you, always drive with your lights on. And, of course, everyone in the car should be wearing a seatbelt, he said.

Clark had one idea that may surprise some readers: Try to remove ice and snow from your shoes before getting in your vehicle, because as they melt, they create moisture build-up, causing windows to fog on the inside.

If it does happen, reduce fogging by turning the air recirculation switch to the off position. That brings in drier, fresh air. Or, for a few minutes, you can  “defog” the inside windows by using your air conditioner, which serves as a dehumidifier.

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