Have you ever wondered what are the most effective methods to increase road safety in winter? Did you know that changing to winter tires and reducing speed are key aspects of safety when driving on slippery surfaces? You will learn the answers to these and many more questions by listening to the first episode of AmberPodcast, in which, during an interview with Superintendent Joanna Skrent from the Road Traffic Department of the Provincial Headquarters in Gdańsk, we present effective strategies for dealing with difficult weather conditions behind the wheel, on the motorway and in the city.
Anna Kordecka: Welcome to the new episode of AmberPodcast. Today we are going to talk about road safety in winter. Winter doesn’t let up, and snow or freezing rain make our streets a place of even greater challenges, both for drivers and pedestrians. Our today’s guest is Superintendent Joanna Skrent from the Road Traffic Department of the Provincial Headquarters in Gdańsk.
Joanna Skrent: Hello everyone.
AK: What are the main challenges related to road safety in winter in different regions of Europe?
JS: The threats are going to be different, really from country to country, because Europe is a very diverse region. And here we have both northern and southern countries, so these threats will be different for those countries where winter occurs for most of the year, there is a lot of snowfall and there are also experiences related to winter maintenance, for example, of roads. This is also why drivers are accustomed to such conditions. On the other hand, southern countries, where snowfall or lower temperatures can be sporadic. Here, the risks can be so much greater. On the one hand, there is no road infrastructure prepared for this, first of all, for the maintenance of such winter roads. But drivers also can’t, they’re just not used to driving on slippery surfaces in winter. They also often don’t have their cars properly prepared. These risks will also be different when it comes to the mentality of the drivers, as well as the driving style and driving culture. So it’s very, very diverse here. Definitely, when it comes to winter, we would have to look at the northern countries, their experience in terms of education, in terms of road maintenance and in terms of how drivers themselves drive on the roads.
AK: Exactly. Recently, I have been looking at road fatality statistics in the European Union countries and they indicate that Sweden is still the safest country on the roads. Romania, on the other hand, has the highest fatality rate. What does Poland look like in this field? Are these accident statistics decreasing, or are they staying the same? And are there safety measures that are more common in European countries with lower accident rates than in Poland?
JS: Definitely, these differences are visible in Europe. And as we have already mentioned, this difference will also depend on the geographical location, on the population density of the country in which these studies and statistics will be presented. And it is true that in these northern countries, and therefore more winter-like, there are fewer accidents. The mortality rate is also immediately lower, because the largest number of road accidents, not only in Poland, but also in other European countries, take place in very good weather conditions. So, in those countries where the sun will shine for a long time, when it gets dark late, there will be conditions for greater activity, longer periods of activity in road traffic, there will also be more accidents, and therefore there will be more victims of these accidents. As far as Poland is concerned, Poland is more or less in the middle. Recent studies have shown that there were 46 deaths per million inhabitants. On the other hand, looking back a few years, back to 2019, this number is almost double, i.e. almost 80 people per million inhabitants. So, we can see that this decline is very large. Well, let’s hope that this trend will definitely continue. So we are neither in last place nor the leaders here. Here, however, we will continue to strive for the vision of ‘zero’ that is present throughout Europe, that is, the elimination of fatalities in terms of road traffic altogether.
AK: You said that the accident rate in Poland is decreasing. What does it depend on? Is it because we drive better vehicles, or has our infrastructure improved? Are there any other factors that play a role?
JS: Road safety is influenced by many factors. It will never be the case that one thing will categorically change the form of statistics, and thus the picture of road safety. On the one hand, this safety will depend on the way we move ourselves, i.e. the awareness we have as road users. But also what kind of vehicles we drive. The safer this vehicle is, the more it will guarantee our safety, the more it will protect us from being involved in an event, a collision or an accident, because it will depend, on our driving style. But it will definitely protect us, so it will reduce the negative consequences, so for example, from a fatality there will be a wounded victim, or from a seriously injured victim, there will be a slightly injured victim, or we will not be injured at all, because our vehicle will absorb all the energy of the collision, and all the safety zones inside the vehicle, which are to ensure the safety of people in it, that’s what they’re going to do. But also, a very big element that affects safety is the road infrastructure. The last few years have shown us that this actually has a big impact on safety and on the statistics of road incidents as well. Because building modern roads, infrastructure that takes into account the mistakes of drivers, so the so-called “infrastructure that forgives these mistakes”, where we have emergency lanes, where we have such zones, if a car goes off the road, it will lose its energy, and it will not fall into a deep ditch or a roadside tree. Also the separation of traffic directions, i.e. collision-free roads where overtaking itself becomes much safer. This means that there are fewer incidents on such roads.
AK: Winter outside the window, sometimes snowing, sometimes freezing rain, other times temperatures above zero, but strong gusts of wind. What are the most effective methods related to road safety in winter, when we are dealing with such changing weather conditions?
JS: Nothing will give us a 100% guarantee, because even if we have a vehicle equipped with all possible safety systems, the moment we enter an icy surface, unfortunately these safety systems also have a certain limit of operation. At the moment when we are going to drive on the so-called glass, a lot depends on our skills, on how we will drive the vehicle. So, again, here we have a couple of factors. So, the weakest link in the road safety system is simply the element that is located between the driver’s seat and the steering wheel, that is, the driver himself, because he is the one who performs the road manoeuvres. If in such very unfavorable road conditions, and especially in the winter ones, where we have a slippery surface, where, for example, we sometimes have snow, which falls so intensively that our windows are not able to provide us with visibility. Because the side windows of the vehicle will simply be “collapsed”, and the road will be icy, snowy, or there will be snow mud. This is where a lot depends on how we decide to go; Are we going to be careful? Are we going to keep these distances from the vehicle in front of us? Are we going to reduce the speed? And here, this speed will be the key element when it comes to a slippery surface, because the higher the speed, the smaller the error, which causes greater, more tragic consequences of this particular error. Also, the possibility of stopping or braking on a slippery road is much more difficult than when it comes to other surfaces that are not covered with ice or snow. So, here are also these elements of our driving style. But the preparation of the vehicle depends on whether we have a technically efficient vehicle, whether our steering system is functional, whether the braking system is functional. But also, unfortunately, what still happens, whether we have winter or summer tires. And it happens that despite the frosts, people drive on summer tires all year round.
AK: Exactly, since we referred to the tyres. What are the main differences between winter and summer tyres?
JS: The main difference between these tires, as the name suggests, is the purpose itself. One tire is for winter driving, the other for summer driving. And that’s why these divisions are made, because they will be made of a different mixture. Summer tires will start to harden during sub-zero temperatures, and thus there will be less grip, they will simply slide more even on wet surfaces, not even icy ones, but on wet surfaces. On the other hand, winter tires with a compound that is prepared for lower temperatures, it will not thicken as much. That grip with this soft rubber will be much greater. They also differ in tread, and therefore in the method of drainage. Some are more prepared for the drainage of small rainfall, and the other for winter rainfall, just for the removal of slush, for example. Of course, here it is necessary to remind that these tires are good if they are also of good quality and proven brands. We want them to be adapted to our driving style, but also to the vehicle we drive. So, let’s check what parameters of tires should be for our vehicle. But let’s remember that we are also driving the vehicle, so we cannot rely solely on winter tires. We never know when, even on a black surface, we will hit ice, and on ice, unfortunately, a winter tire can also slip and we will be driving like “a spinner” on the road.
AK: And what are the differences when it comes to braking distances with summer and winter tyres? If we decide to use summer tyres in winter, how much longer will the braking distance be?
JS: It is precisely because of this compound, i.e. the way the tyre will behave in low temperatures, that we recommend using these winter tyres as much as possible, because when we have grip, the vehicle will brake on a shorter distance and the overall stopping distance of the vehicle will be shorter. It is estimated that the distance is approximately 20% longer if we have inappropriate tires. If these are summer tires, we will try to brake during winter and on slippery, snow- or ice-covered roads. So 20%, let’s imagine that if we have this road on a slippery surface, we will have to stop even 10 meters. If we add 20%, sometimes this 20% is the difference between stopping in front of the car in front of us or, unfortunately, causing a collision.
AS: How should you prepare your car for winter driving? How to clear them properly, How to heat them up properly? Because the sight of a car with the engine running in the morning is quite common.
JS: In the winter, we just need to check how our vehicle is maintained. That’s the first thing. But how, we also maintain this vehicle. So if you have a snow-covered car, you should clear it thoroughly, not only a piece of the windshield, but the whole car including the roof. Due to the fact that this snow will be blown onto the road while driving, it will blow onto other vehicles, limiting visibility. There will be such a mist rising from this snow behind us. If it is already frozen snow, where there was a thaw at the temperature differences, for example, and then the frost took hold again, then pieces of ice will even break off from the roof while driving. And this is very dangerous, because on the one hand, it can cause some kind of window breakage, especially if it is a large piece of ice from the truck. But for example, a situation when this lump of ice will fly on the window of the car behind us and the driver will scare the other car. So here thorough snow removal, both of the roof and here, of the windshield, the rear side window, but also the removal of snow from the headlights. So that we are simply visible. If we want to turn, we should also make sure that the turn signal is properly cleared of snow. And let’s not forget the mirrors, not every car on our roads has heated mirrors yet, so let’s make sure that our windows are cleared of snow very thoroughly before we set off, because this will ensure our visibility. This is not only a matter of legal obligation, but above all of our safety.
AK: And what about the proper heating of the car before we set off on a journey?
JS: A lot of people clear their cars by starting the engine first. The car is partially heating up, as if it was clearing the snow itself, and at the same time it causes us to get into the car already heated. Here we must remember that leaving such a car with the engine running is not advisable, if only for the sake of ecology. This is regulated by law and may constitute an offence depending on how the vehicle is used and left and for how long. However, here we should remember that it is primarily about ecology. It’s about this excessive exhaust emissions, and that’s not good from that point of view. However, the issue is sometimes, there are such parking heating systems that are used by people, especially those who have either a larger vehicle or simply our heating does not work completely. And such a so-called parking heater can also help us. On the other hand, the correct snow removal here would be clearing snow from the car with the engine not running, i.e. one that does not cause excessive exhaust emissions.
AK: And what to do if we have a frozen window from the inside of the car?
JS: It’s very often frustrating and difficult because we’ve already cleared the snow from our car. We lost some energy and time. And nowadays we are in a hurry everywhere. And suddenly it turns out that you can’t really see anything here, because the entire windshield is frozen, but from the inside. Of course, you can use a scraper here, but I know from experience, because it happened once in my car. This is not entirely efficient, because the curvature of the glass is slightly different and scraping is much more difficult. It is also the heating of this windshield with air supply that is long-lasting. If something like this happens to us, we can use defrosters that are in a spray, which will make it easier to remove this freezing from the glass. Of course, now after using such a defroster, you should also wipe the glass well from the inside. But to prevent this from happening in the first place, it would be a good idea to keep the windows clean from the inside as well. So that we wipe it from time to time, either with a glass cleaning fluid or sometimes with an alcohol-based liquid, so that we do not leave any dirt or contaminants on the glass and moisture.
AK: If we were to sum it up. So, what are the top tips for drivers to drive safely in winter?
JS: Driving in winter can be challenging, especially for those who don’t drive very often. So, the main thing here is caution. That’s the main thing I’d put in. And what does it consist of? First of all, the driving is very smooth, without sudden braking, without sudden lane changes, and with an appropriate distance from the vehicle in front of us. Simply, so that we have the space and time to stop the vehicle. Driving also at a much reduced speed. If we feel that the surface is very slippery, we move at the so-called snail’s pace. Anyway, we will probably observe that other drivers have also significantly reduced their speed. So, first of all, slowly, with more distance, smoothly and without fear. So that we don’t get scared, we don’t stress about the fact that something is happening. Even if the wheels slip, we should also remember that here too some sudden work on the brake or on the steering wheel is not advisable. A gentle acceleration is sometimes enough, or sometimes just a gentle application of the gas, to calm our car down and keep going straight. Also, crossing curves of the road should be at a reduced speed and very smooth here, without sudden turns of the steering wheel.
AK: I think it is worth adding additional training courses, especially in winter driving. During them, you can see quite well how difficult it is to get out of a skid, but there are techniques for it.
JS: I would definitely recommend refresher courses, not only in terms of winter driving. Although here, perhaps the most important thing is that you can test it in very safe conditions, because on the skid mat the instructor will lead you by the hand and show you how to get the vehicle out of the skid. First of all, on such courses we can see how the car itself behaves. What causes skidding, and how to get out of such a skid. And in fact, it can come in handy in normal, everyday life, when driving in winter. But I would really recommend such courses to anyone who wants to see how to get out of an emergency situation. Because they will be useful not only in winter, but also in summer, for example, learning the correct technique of overcoming curves of the road, when to accelerate, when to slow down and what to do if we have a situation of emergency braking or emergency avoidance of an obstacle.
AK: Thank you very much for today’s meeting and see you in the next episodes of the podcast.
JS: Thank you very much.