eric-hepperle-winter-driving-iowa-tips-feat-2After an unseasonably hot September and first week or so of October in the Wiregrass region of southern Alabama, last night (10/11/18) temperatures finally began to cool (in Alabama, cool temperatures means mid to low seventies, Fahrenheit). In fact, the day prior, Hurricane Michael (which waffled between a category 3 and category 4 hurricane or tropical storm, depending on the news source and time) ushered in a bit of colder weather. The temperature was actually comfortable enough for me to not need to have central air running. If ya’ll don’t know or I haven’t told you yet, my body runs hotter than most, so when others are just fine, its like a sauna for me. As a result, I often need the air conditioning to be on and the wind blowing in my face to not feel sick. Interestingly, my wife is just the opposite in that respect.

As autumn/fall turns to winter in the south, I’m remembering what winters in Iowa were like and giving thanks that Winter is so much gentler down here. I was born and raised in Iowa and aside from a small flirtation with living in Portland, Oregon in 2004 — after taking a bus to Elko, Nevada where I trained to be an underground gold miner for four days, and quitting on that 4th day based on omens and all the “safety training” videos that showed people dying in mine disasters no matter how safe they personally were being — I had never actually left Iowa to live somewhere else until 2011. I moved for jobs in the Information Technology (IT), web design, and software development fields. First to Indianapolis, then to Panama City Beach, back to Iowa briefly to collect the remainder of my things and sell the rest, and finally out to Portland, Oregon, where I had family at the time.

So, for about thirty-seven years I learned and lived through the different possible expressions of Winter in Iowa. Sometimes it could be gentle. I remember walking in tennis shoes in late December on the curb for ten miles in my mid-twenties with a light unzipped winter coat on and the wind barely blowing.

But, Iowa Winters can also be quite harsh. Sometimes the roads are covered with slush (part ice, part water) which will cause you to hydroplane just as sure as if it was raining hard. Other times there have been blizzards. I think I lived through at least 10 blizzards in Iowa and two in Oregon; the Iowa blizzards were by far the worst. I think the reason is that since Iowa is a state of flat plains, there are no mountains or skyscrapers to act as windbreaks.

An Alabama Experience in Iowa

One year, around 1998, I was working in Hiawatha, Iowa for a Company called Mattel Interactive. Mattel had bought out another company called Broderbund/The Learning Company (maker of educational adventure software including Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, Clue Finders, Roller Coaster Tycoon, and of course, the Oregon Trail and Amazon Trail series), which in turn had bought out an Iowa tech company called Parsons Technology. Parsons was, interestingly enough founded by the same guy who created GoDaddy, the popular web host. I remember working there for about 6 months until they just dropped the whole division out of the blue.

Jill Barad was CEO at the time and this was my first real job in software. I was a telephone technical support rep and my job was to instruct users — mostly mom’s of children 10 and under — in how to fix their software issues over the phone. I loved it. They trained us for a week or two in Windows XP support, but there was a major sales component to the role also. Every time I would fix a users issue, I would then genetly probe (ask inquisitive questions) to see what other needs their family might have. I sold big-ticket items, but only if the probing analysis warranted it. But, the majority of my sales were $5-$50 software titles. I loved the 20 or so times in the six months I worked for Mattel, that I was able to sell the coolest item they had in the catalog: a working children’s microscope with built in digital camera for recording to your computer. This was still at least a decade before basic camera functionality was ubiquitious in mobile phones. I won top sales performance awards my first three months on the job.

I was pleased each time I was able to help solve a customer’s technical problems, even if they didn’t buy anything else. I just loved helping people solve practical life problems with technology.

Well, anyway, let’s get back to the Alabama connection. For whatever reason — perhaps they were students at one of Iowa’s centrally located state universities (ISU, University of Iowa) — about a dozen young adults (18-23 yrs old) from Alabama came to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to work and live that year. At least 6 of them were in my division, Edcon (Educational Consumer). I lived 60 miles away in Waterloo and commuted an hour or so each morning depending on traffic. I didn’t like the commute, but I loved the job so I did what it took, got up extra early, had an extra change of clothes with me in the car at all times, and had an active AAA membership to ensure that nothing would stop me from getting to work.

Well, one snowy winter evening in early November, I believe, caused a full spectrum of Iowa winter phenomena including black ice — made more treacherous by the light blanket of fluffy, new-fallen snow. The black ice along with the high winds, blowing snow, and regular icy roads made driving particularly dangerous this day. I heard the news reports the night previous, so I got up an hour earlier to start my car and have time to drive a little slower. The speed limit was 65 MPH on the highway, but on this particular day, the safest I could go was about 40.

I got to work about 5 minutes late but received recognition from my supervisor because 3/4 of the team of about 20 didn’t even show up. None of the folks from Alabama showed up. We found out the next day that all of them had ended up in a ditch at some point in their commute, some carpooling, some driving solo. They didn’t have the privilege learning to drive safely on snow and ice in the often dangerous wintry weather Iowa has to offer.

Winter Driving Tips: Do’s and Don’ts

But, even those who know better, who grew up in and around freezing weather conditions and learned how to drive in it, often find it easy to drift from what they know they should do (freezing weather driving best practices), to doing what their emotions lead them to do. Here are some quick tips to be aware of if you find yourself needing to drive in freezing cold, icy, frosty weather:

  1. DO drive slower than the speed limit. About 10 miles slower at least.
  2. DO keep at least 2 car lengths between you and the next vehicle. If either of you have to stop quickly, but the car keeps moving you will at least be able to veer into a ditch rather than crashing into a vehicle and possibly injuring or killing someone.
  3. DO slow down even more than you thought was reasonable if you see 3 or more passengers vehicles or 2 or more semi trucks in ditches in a 5 mile stretch.
  4. DO consider not leaving home if the weather reports many vehicles slid in ditches.
  5. If you are in a car and get passed by an SUV or big truck, DON’T try to match his speed. You will not make it and you will likely spin out and end up in a ditch.
  6. DO take proper vehicle precautions including ensuring your tires have good tread and your windshield defroster works.
  7. DO ensure you have a full tank of gas; it is a good idea to add gas line antifreeze also (HEET is a good brand).
  8. DON’T allow distractions — using the cell phone, changing a radio station, grabbing for a french fry that fell on the floor, turning around to yell at rowdy kids in the back, etc.
  9. NEVER slam on the brakes, even if it is supposed to be “anti-lock”.

Photo Gallery of Winter Car and Truck Mishaps (mostly in Iowa)

Here are a few photos I have shot over the years showing what happens when you aren’t careful driving in wintry weather conditions (taken between 2008 and 2010). Some vehicles are lucky and just slide in a ditch. Others, not so fortunate crash into poles, trees, signs, other vehicles, guard rails and risk serious injury or death. In fact, I risked my own life (perhaps somewhat foolishly) to capture these moments and evidence of what careless Iowa winter driving consequences can be.

And I even had my own Iowa Winter driving horror story which I did my best to document visually in photos. Here is my story.

My 2003 Suzuki Aerio compact sports car, the day after spinning into a ditch going 30 MPH (2008). The car was fine (the broken running light was from a different time)
My 2003 Suzuki Aerio compact sports car, the day after spinning into a ditch going 30 MPH (2008). The car was fine (the broken running light was from a different time)

Story Time: How I Almost Died Driving Slow in Heavy Snow

The most dangerous snow is new snow. I was driving back to Iowa from Oregon in my tiny Suzuki Aerio in winter of 2008. I had been driving for about 9 hours trying to make it back to Waterloo before dark. Around 6:30 PM, not long after I had crossed into Iowa near Omaha/Council Bluffs, the first flakes of snow started to fall. In 30 minutes the snow went from just a few flakes to a full blown 30 mile-an-hour flurry including and it blowing almost horizontally at my windshield. I was not going very fast at all, in fact, at 30 MPH I thought I was being very mindful and cautious on a highway where the speed limit was 65.

It might not have been so bad, and what happened next might not have happened, had I had tires with good tread for winter driving. As the last glint of sunlight disappeared on the horizon, replaced by purple clouds and blowing snow, somewhere outside of Winterset, Iowa a semi trying to make time sped past me causing a draft that sucked my poor little compact sports car with bald tires right in. I felt like if I didn’t do something I would crash right into the semi and that would be the end of me. Reacting quickly I turned the steering wheel to my left and that is when I lost all control. If I had believed in God at the time I would probably have said “it’s in God’s hands now”.

Though I was maneuvering the steering wheel and the brakes like I learned in 10th grade driver’s ed, I began to slide into the ditch. “At least I’m not crashing into the semi“, I thought. But, I rather wanted to stay on the road. My little car had other ideas and I knew this could be the end for me.

My Suzuki spun around 3 whole times while I wondered what ultimate fate awaited me. Did I see my life flash before my eyes? Nope. I just knew at that point that no matter what I did, I had no control over what was happening; only how I chose to deal with it. I chose to be calm and thankful. When the car finally stopped spinning I was smack dab in the middle of the ditch. I wasn’t hit and I didn’t hit anything. I was so blessed to be alive and that my car wasn’t damaged. But, with my poor tire tread I wasn’t going anywhere.

After I caught my breath, I called the Insurance company for tow assistance. But, there wasn’t anything available until morning because of all the vehicles that had already slid into ditches that evening all throughout the state due to this sudden and powerful winter storm. After about an hour of sitting there starting to become cold, but really mostly comfortable — except for being tired and a little hungry — a sheriff deputy found me and took me to a gas station about 2 miles or so down the highway. In a way, it was fortunate that my mishap happened right near an overpass.

The deputy told me that he was going to have to give me a ticket for loss of control of my vehicle, even though I didn’t hit anything. What could I do. I was just happy that he had found me and was bringing me somewhere safe and warm and I could sleep maybe. He drove me (in the front seat) to the gas station/convenience store and he may have even bought me a small bag of chips and a mountain dew so that I could have something to eat. I was waiting for him to write me a ticket, but I was saved. He had to leave in a hurry as he was called away to a higher priority accident. God saved me from getting a ticket that day.

But, I didn’t know that yet. I waited in the cold outside the store for about an hour for the deputy to come back. But, he never did. Then I noticed, to my good fortune, that there was a tiny motel conveniently located across from where I was standing. I was fortunate to get their last vacant room (they were full up due to the snow storm). I slept there overnight and when I awoke in the morning I called the tow truck who came and took me to a local Suzuki dealer who inspected my car. There was no damage they told me and said the car was road ready. Another blessing!

I left that dealership thankful for my luck and my life as I drove home the final 200 miles to Waterloo.

Me and my Aerio before during and after that blizzard in 2008

Have you ever had a similar experience driving in Winter? How did you learn about winter driving? What is the worst winter driving experience you’ve had? Answer in the comments below.

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