Effects of winter driving in Wisconsin UW-Madison Engineering Professional Development

Winter is a big deal, and driving in winter conditions is one of the most important concerns of the season.

In the last five years, Wisconsin has averaged over 18,600 motor vehicle crashes during the winter months when roads are covered with ice, snow or slush.

How to prevent crashes

Slow down

Be aware of your surroundings

Pay attention to other vehicles, especially snow plows

“People don’t realize that snowplows traveling are a lot slower… As you’re coming up to the snowplow you don’t always realize how fast or slow it’s going because it usually just has two small lights on it. It’s hard to judge how fast it’s going as you’re coming upon it,” says Andrea Bill, a traffic safety engineer research program manager at UW-Madison.

It’s when people are not paying attention and being distracted that they hit plows and other vehicles. That’s why it’s important to slow down to give yourself time to avoid crashing, and be aware of what’s around you.

Handling crashes

Stay in your vehicle

You are safer staying inside your car right after a crash especially on busy roads, because chances are there are other drivers who will crash for the same reason you did (like a ice patch). “Your vehicle has a lot more safety features than you by yourself outside the vehicle,” says Bill.

Call and signal for help

Call for law enforcement after a crash and wait in your vehicle until it comes. To make your car visible, turn your hazard lights on, tie a flag or scarf on the antenna or hang it from the window, and turn interior lights on at night.

Turn off your engine

It's better to turn off your engine to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. But if you have to turn on your vehicle to stay warm, keep a window open a crack and make sure the exhaust pipe is not blocked by snow, as deadly the gas can enter the vehicle.

Avoid overexertion

Pushing your vehicle or shoveling show makes you sweaty – wet clothing loses insulation, which makes you susceptible to hypothermia.

Pack a kit in your vehicle to survive after a crash

One way to achieve optimal safety for winter driving is to de-ice roads with salt and other chemicals.

However, these substances have a significant impact on surrounding vegetation and water.

In the winter, balancing the health of the environment and the safety of drivers is tricky.

De-icers, drivers’ safety and the environment - can Wisconsin have it all?

MADISON, Wis. - When that mid-December snow storm hits, Wisconsin drivers typically aren’t thinking about the environment. Usually, they’re more concerned about icy conditions, spin-offs, traffic jams and delays. So it’s not a surprise that drivers are happy to see salt trucks dumping 526,000 tons of sodium chloride onto the 113,000 miles of Wisconsin roadways throughout the winter months.

But such a high dosage of road salt has detrimental effects on our environment. According to an aquatic toxicity study published in 2010, 57% of water sites studied around the Milwaukee area had chloride levels above 860mg/L. Such high levels have proven to be lethal to fish and aquatic plants.

Effects of salt on roadside vegetation

The effects can be seen along stretches of rural highway. The slushy, salty gunk on the road gets sprayed onto trees and vegetation, causing needles and leaves to brown and die. Sometimes entire branches or trees die from the harmful chemicals.

Andrea Bill, a traffic safety engineer research program manager at UW-Madison, was unsure of what the immediate solutions might be to end harmful effects on the environment. But she suggested trying new solutions, then monitoring both their effectiveness and environmental impact.

Andrea Bill

“I think that there’s definitely more work that can be done to look at this,” Bill said. “We shouldn’t just keep doing the same things over and over again just because we’ve done it. Let’s think of some other options.”

Those other options include putting organic-based materials on the roads. Wisconsin has tried beet juice and cheese brine, to name a few. Connie Quamme, University Services Program Associate at UW-Madison, says beet juice seemed to be an effective solution.

“[Beet juice] seems like it works just as well [as road salt]. So why don’t [Wisconsin officials] turn it all over to some more natural and organic deicers?” Quamme said. “Don’t bother to put the ice melting things on when they know it’s going to be so cold, it’s not going to do anything. Just tell people, they can understand… it’s a waste.”

Bill said she believes drivers’ safety is more important than environmental health, because people’s lives are at risk with winter crashes and slippery conditions.

“It would be nice for drivers to understand the impacts that they’re having on [the environment],” Bill said. “But the fact that we can’t get people to slow down [or] pay attention, especially in winter conditions, shows that we still need to make sure we’re protecting the public.”

Bill acknowledged that the health effects of chloride may be more immediate than we think, and that farmers and drivers alike can work to be more critical of the damaging chemicals.

“The effects on our crops is affecting us the next year so I think that there's a shorter impact than what we’re even… acknowledging,” Bill said. “We think, ‘well its always been done this way, so those first three rows of corn are always going to be kind of crappy because of the salt content in the soil there,’ but just because it has always been done that way doesn't mean we shouldn’t be thinking about it.”

Quamme agreed that deicers are important for drivers’ safety but recognizes that the negative implications of them may have harmful, far reaching effects.

“Because I [drive] so far, and I want to be so safe, I guess I am ok with the de-icers,” Quamme said. “But at the same time, it tugs at your sense of what’s right and wrong; that they’re using something that’s bad.”

Bill says helping the public understand how different conditions call for different solutions will help us take steps to both improve the environment and reduce the number of winter crashes.

“I think having people understand when you should use different [solutions], what the effects are and staying off the roadways when there’s poor weather conditions [will help].”

UW-Madison Engineering Professional Development offers the class, Managing Snow and Ice Control Operations, which covers the basics of winter road management for publics works directors and other professionals whose work impacts drivers’ safety on the roads.

True or False Quiz

How much do you know about winter driving?

1. You should get out of your car and inspect a crash right after it happens.
FALSE - You are safer staying inside your car right after a crash especially on busy roads, because chances are there are other drivers who will crash for the same reason you did (like a ice patch). You have extra protection being in your vehicle than in the open.
2. More fatal crashes occur during the summer.
TRUE - In the summer, when driving conditions are safe, people think they can drive more recklessly than they do trying to be safe in the winter, resulting in more deadly crashes.
3. Road salt works in all conditions and temperatures.
FALSE - Traditional sodium chloride road salt only works in conditions above 15 degrees. Chemicals like magnesium chloride, or "green salt," are used for conditions that drop below 15 degrees, but the effects this has on the environment is still unclear.
4. Cheese byproducts and beet juice are options being considered for replacing salt to de-ice roads.
TRUE - "Organic" solutions like beet juice and cheese brine are being implemented on Wisconsin roadways as solutions so some of these environmental problems. However, drivers did not approve of beet juice because some said it looked like blood on the road!
5. Turning on your vehicle for several minutes before you drive helps warm up your engine.
FALSE - Contrary to popular belief, there are no benefits from turning on your car before driving, besides warming the inside for passengers. “It has no benefit on the engine. People thought it would be better before you drive but it’s not true..." says Andi Bill. "Now when we have [all the additives to our gasoline], it doesn’t do a darn thing.”
Engineering Professional Development
Created By
Sophia Dramm



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