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Watching For 'Spray' And Other Tips For Navigating Icy Roads

Michael @ NW Lens
File photo. Winter is just arriving and potentially icy commutes could be around for months in the Northwest.

The Northwest’s deep freeze is over for most of the region, but snow remains in some areas and winter is just arriving. That means more cold temperatures and potentially icy commutes in the months ahead.

Kent Hitchings, a sergeant with the Washington State Patrol, has more than 20 years on the job. And he has one word for winter driving in the lowlands of Puget Sound.


Hitchings says winter road conditions here are treacherous, even compared to his native Iowa.

“It was just a different type of snow," says Hitchings. "The wet, damp snow here combining with our freezing level temperatures just kind of makes that instant ice. It’s just a challenge.”

That's what Northwest lowland winters serve up on a regular basis -- especially on bridges, overpasses and on-and-off ramps. That’s when cars go slipping and sliding.

In the moment, we often panic and brake or steer too hard and end up in the ditch -- or worse. The trick on ice is to apply a light touch and not over-compensate.

But what if conditions suddenly change and you’re driving at freeway speeds?

“It’s tough," says Hitchings. "You’re basically going to have to ride that one out.”

Which is why Sgt. Hitchings and his colleague, Trooper Darren Wright, say drivers need to do a better job of anticipating the conditions. Wright has patrolled Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass area for nearly 23 years and says he’s never run off the road.

“That leads me to believe that almost all of the collisions that are blamed on the conditions, the snow and the ice are preventable,” he says.

Trooper Wright says his magic formula for not crashing is: drive the conditions and buy a set of good tires. This time of year the Patrol uses ultra-grip winter tires, but not studs.

Trooper Wright also offered a couple of handy tips. If you’re not sure if the road is wet or icy, look to see if there’s road spray coming off the tires of nearby cars.

“It’s not foolproof," he says. "But if you see a wet road and there’s no spray coming up there’s a very good chance that it is frozen.”

Tip number two is a state of mind: give yourself permission to be the slow poke in the slow lane.

“There’s many times I’ll be doing anywhere between 5 and 10, 15 miles per hour down the freeway because that’s what the conditions warrant,” says Wright.

Advice from a guy who’s paid to speed.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."