What You Should Do When Approaching Special Driving Conditions

Chapter 10 - Special Driving Conditions

Driving requires focus and judgment even under the best conditions. But when faced with special conditions or hazards, keeping your attention sharp and making sound judgments becomes even more crucial. To be a safe and responsible driver, you must learn how to navigate through railroad crossings, drive on expressways, handle night driving, and drive in challenging weather conditions. Let’s explore each of these situations in detail.

Railroad Crossings

Grade Crossings

A grade crossing is where train tracks intersect with a roadway, and it’s important to treat it as an intersection. As you approach a crossing, always be prepared for a train. Trains can run on any track, at any time, from any direction. Never attempt to race a train to a crossing, drive around lowered gates, or stop on tracks. When crossing tracks, stay in your lane and in the same gear.

Some grade crossings have flashing red lights or lowering gates when a train is approaching (referred to as “active” grade crossings). When approaching these crossings, wait until the gates are completely raised and the lights are off before proceeding. It is illegal and dangerous to go around lowered gates or to cross while the lights are still flashing.

Other grade crossings may not have gates or flashing lights (referred to as “passive” grade crossings). When approaching these crossings, slow down and be prepared to stop. Before you cross, make sure that no train is coming. If you see a train, wait until it passes, and only cross the tracks when it is safe to do so. If there are multiple tracks, ensure you have clear visibility in both directions for any approaching trains before crossing.

Always remember that the train you see is closer and moving faster than you think, and trains cannot stop quickly.

Railroad Crossing Warning Sign

Railroad Crossing Warning Sign

  • COLOR: Yellow with black letters “RR” and “X” symbol.
  • MEANING: Indicates a railroad crossing ahead. Exercise caution and be prepared to stop. If you are following a bus or truck approaching a railroad crossing, be extra cautious. Most buses and some trucks must come to a complete stop at railroad crossings.

Railroad Crossing Signals

Flashing red lights, lowered crossing gates, and/or a bell at a railroad crossing mean that you must stop at least 15 feet (5 meters) from the tracks. Do not proceed across the tracks until the lights and bell have stopped, and the crossing gates are completely raised. Never drive around or under a moving gate.

Yield when you see a crossbuck sign, which is a sign shaped like an “X” with “RAILROAD CROSSING” printed on it. If there are multiple train tracks, the sign will indicate the number of tracks.

Always look and listen for trains before crossing any railroad tracks. If an approaching train is near or traveling at high speed, do not attempt to cross the tracks, even if there are no signals or they are not functioning.

Do not attempt to cross any railroad tracks unless you are certain that your entire vehicle will clear all of the tracks at the crossing. Ensure there is sufficient room for your vehicle on the other side before crossing. If other traffic prevents you from fully crossing, wait until there is enough space.

School buses, buses with passengers, and vehicles carrying explosives or flammable cargo must stop at all railroad crossings. Keep these rules in mind if you are following any of these vehicles.

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Pavement Markings

Sometimes, grade crossings may not have flashing red light signals or gates. In such cases, pavement markings are used to indicate the presence of a grade crossing. When waiting for a train to pass, stay behind the stop line.

Stalling on Railroad Tracks

Railroad Emergency Contact Information Sign

What should you do if your vehicle stalls on the tracks?

  1. GET OUT! This applies to everyone in the car, including children, babies, and elderly passengers.
  2. Move away from the tracks, even if you don’t see a train.
  3. Locate the Emergency Notification System sign and call the provided number to report the stalled vehicle.

If a train is approaching, run toward the general direction the train is coming from but away from the tracks at a 45-degree angle. Running “down the track,” in the same direction as the train, can expose you to debris when the train hits your vehicle.

Expressway Driving

An expressway is a divided highway where traffic moves in one direction on two or more lanes. Examples include the New York State Thruway, major interstate routes, and parkways. Before you embark on an expressway journey, familiarize yourself with the entrance and exit points on a road map. It’s important to know where to get on and off the expressway and be prepared to enter the correct lanes for your entrance and exit. If you accidentally enter the expressway going in the wrong direction or miss an exit, stay on the expressway until the next exit. Once off the expressway, you can figure out your route and find an appropriate reentry point. Backing up on an entrance or exit ramp or attempting to cross a median is dangerous and should be avoided.

Expressway Driving - on ramp

Unless there is a stop or yield sign or a traffic light on the entrance ramp, use the ramp to accelerate and merge with the flow of traffic on the expressway. Signal your intention to merge, then check over your shoulder for traffic already on the expressway. If necessary, slow down to safely merge. In cases where the entrance lane is too short to allow acceleration to expressway speed, it is safest to stop and wait for a large gap in traffic before entering. To avoid conflicts with other vehicles entering the expressway, merge into traffic as soon as it is possible.

While driving on the expressway, remember to signal all lane changes and check your blind spots to ensure a safe transition. After changing lanes, make sure to turn off your directional signal. Stay vigilant for vehicles entering the expressway ahead. If possible, move to the left lane when approaching entrances to provide more room for merging vehicles.

Expressway Driving - off ramp

To avoid last-minute lane changes, pay attention to destination and exit signs and get into the correct lane for your exit well in advance. Signal your intention to exit at least 100 feet (30 meters) before reaching the off-ramp. As you approach the off-ramp, reduce your speed accordingly. The posted speed limit on the ramp is usually lower than on the expressway. After successfully leaving the expressway, check for speed limit signs and adjust your speed accordingly. Typically, expressways have a higher speed limit, so it’s crucial to maintain a safe and appropriate speed.

Expressway driving involves higher speeds and heavier traffic compared to regular driving. The combination of speed and traffic requires you to react quickly and handle your vehicle efficiently. During long trips on the expressway, plan for frequent rest stops. Additionally, on bright days, wearing sunglasses can reduce glare and minimize eye fatigue.

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Night Driving

Approximately 90% of your decisions while driving are based on visual cues. At night, visibility is reduced, requiring extra caution on the roads. It’s worth noting that the ability to see well at night decreases with age.

Night driving is more challenging due to the limited distance you can see ahead or to the sides. To compensate for this, you should drive slower than you would during daylight hours, particularly on unfamiliar or winding roads. The range covered by your headlights is approximately 350 feet ahead, so it’s essential to drive at a speed that allows you to stop safely within that distance. This concept is known as “driving within the range” of your headlights.

According to the law, you must use your headlights from half an hour after sunset to half an hour before sunrise, as well as during periods of reduced visibility (less than 1,000 feet or 300 meters) caused by rain, snow, or fog. Additionally, use your headlights at dawn, dusk, and in foggy conditions. While headlights may not significantly improve your vision during low-light periods, they enhance the visibility of your vehicle to other drivers and pedestrians. Parking lights or daytime running lights should not be used as a substitute for headlights. If an oncoming driver flashes their headlights at you during low visibility, it means your vehicle is difficult to see, and you should turn on your headlights immediately.

To avoid blinding other drivers, dim your high beams when within 500 feet (150 meters) of an oncoming vehicle or within 200 feet (60 meters) of a vehicle ahead, even if that vehicle is in a different lane. Dim your lights for pedestrians approaching from any direction. If you encounter an approaching vehicle with high beams that are not promptly dimmed, briefly switch your headlights to high beam to signal them, then return to low beam. To reduce the glare from following vehicles’ headlights, adjust your inside rear-view mirror to the “night” position.

The interior lights of your vehicle and streetlights can hinder your vision of the road ahead. Keep your interior roof light off and dim the dashboard lights to decrease glare from above. Adjust your visors to minimize glare from overhead lights.

A dirty windshield exacerbates glare from oncoming headlights. Ensure that your lights and windshield are clean, especially when driving at night.

Driving in Rain, Fog, or Snow

Rain, fog, and snow can make the roads slippery and reduce visibility. In such conditions, it’s crucial to slow down, increase your following distance, and exercise caution, as outlined in Chapter 8. Pay extra attention when navigating curves, turns, and expressway ramps.

In heavy rain, your tires may ride on the water accumulated on the road surface, causing hydroplaning. Hydroplaning occurs more frequently at higher speeds, worn-out tires, or improperly inflated tires. It is advisable to drive at slower speeds when it is raining heavily. If your vehicle begins to lose traction, decrease your speed even further. Good tires with deep tread are effective in preventing hydroplaning.

Rain, fog, or snow decrease your visibility and make it difficult for other drivers to see your vehicle. New York State law mandates that you turn on your headlights when using windshield wipers to clear precipitation. Daytime running lights do not meet the requirements for headlights.

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Driving with your headlights on high beam reflects off rain, fog, or snow, further impairing your visibility. To improve visibility during adverse weather conditions, keep your headlights on low beam, reduce your speed, and signal your turns well in advance to provide clear warnings to other drivers and road users. When you decrease speed behind another vehicle or approach an intersection, brake earlier than usual.

Some vehicles come equipped with front fog lights or front and back fog lights for use in heavy fog or similar hazardous weather conditions. In New York State, all fog lights must be properly installed and approved by the Commissioner of DMV. Front fog lights may be amber or white, while rear fog lights must be red and can be larger than regular back lights. Their purpose is to warn other drivers of the presence of your vehicle. Remember to switch off your fog lights when visibility improves to avoid disturbing other drivers with glare.

How to Drive in Winter

Winter poses the most challenging driving conditions due to snow and ice on the roads and limited daylight hours.

Before winter weather arrives, ensure that your vehicle is in good condition.

Equip your vehicle with good snow tires before the first snowstorm. Never mix radial and non-radial tires on the same vehicle. Studded tires can be used in New York State from October 16 through April 30.

During ice or snowstorms, it is advisable to avoid driving unless necessary. If you must drive, clear all ice and snow from your vehicle, including the headlights and taillights, windshield wipers, hood, roof, and all windows. Ensure that your windshield washer reservoir is filled with a cleaning solution that resists freezing.

Driving at a reduced speed is crucial. Even if your vehicle has good traction on ice and snow, remember that other drivers will likely be traveling cautiously. Avoid disrupting the flow of traffic by driving faster than other vehicles.

Skids can occur suddenly, and it is essential to be prepared to handle them regardless of your vehicle’s drivetrain. In the event of a rear-wheel skid, turn the steering wheel in the same direction in which the vehicle is sliding. If the skid changes direction, adjust your steering accordingly. If your vehicle is equipped with anti-lock brakes (ABS), maintain even pressure on the brake pedal. For vehicles without ABS, carefully pump the brakes. If you brake abruptly with non-ABS brakes, the situation may worsen.

In the case of a front-wheel skid, take your foot off the gas pedal and shift to neutral or depress the clutch if it is safe to do so. As the wheels skid sideways, the vehicle will slow down, and traction will be regained. Once traction is regained, turn the steering wheel in the direction you want to go and accelerate cautiously.

To prevent skidding on snow and ice, brake early, gently, and carefully. Apply gradual, steady pressure to your brakes. Allow the wheels to continue turning. If they begin to lock up, reduce pressure on the brake pedal. As your vehicle slows down, consider shifting to a lower gear.

When sleet, freezing rain, or snowfall starts, bridges, ramps, and overpasses freeze before other parts of the road. Additionally, slippery spots may remain even after snow removal efforts.

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How to Avoid Collisions with Deer

Two-thirds of all deer-vehicle collisions occur between October and December, the time when deer breed and travel the most. Deer activity is highest during dawn and dusk, which often coincides with peak commuting hours. Keep in mind that deer usually travel in groups, so if you spot one, anticipate the presence of more. Areas prone to deer-vehicle collisions are often marked with deer crossing signs. Here are some precautions you can take to reduce the risk of colliding with a deer:

  • Drive with extra caution during dawn and dusk when visibility is low, and deer are most active.
  • The risk of deer-vehicle collisions increases during the breeding season in October, November, and December.
  • Reduce your speed when you approach deer near roadsides. Deer may unexpectedly change direction.
  • If you see a deer crossing the road, slow down and remain vigilant. More deer may follow.
  • Use your emergency lights or flash your headlights to alert other drivers when you spot deer near or on the road.
  • Exercise caution when driving on roadways marked with deer crossing signs. These signs indicate areas with a high number of deer-vehicle collisions.

Driving Emergencies

In any emergency situation, the most important thing is to remain calm and avoid panic. Maintain your composure and think before you act.

Here’s what you should do in various emergency scenarios:

Tire Blowout: If you hear a thumping sound indicating an imminent blowout, safely pull off the road and check your tires. If a tire blows out, hold the steering wheel tightly and gradually release the gas pedal. If your vehicle skids, handle it as you would on ice or snow. Avoid using the brakes until you regain control. Once safe, move off the road.

Loss of a Wheel: Treat this scenario in the same way as a tire blowout. If you hear a thump or noise from a wheel, pull over and stop. Inspect your vehicle or have it checked.

Steering Failure: If your vehicle suddenly becomes unresponsive to steering inputs, gradually release the gas pedal, switch on your emergency lights, and avoid using the brake pedal as long as it is safe. The vehicle’s momentum will keep it moving straight, but sudden changes in speed could cause loss of control. As the vehicle slows down, you can cautiously apply the brakes to bring it to a stop.

Brake Failure: In the event of sudden brake failure, try pumping your brakes to increase pressure. If that doesn’t help, use your emergency or parking brake gradually, using it gently. If possible, shift to a lower gear to help slow down.

Headlight Failure: If your headlights suddenly go out, try using your emergency lights, parking lights, or directional signals for illumination. These lights may provide enough visibility to safely pull off the road. If your headlights begin to dim, seek assistance or find a safe place to stop.

Stuck Gas Pedal: If your gas pedal becomes jammed, hook your shoe under it to try and free it. If that doesn’t work, shift into neutral and use your brakes to slow down and safely exit the roadway. Avoid turning off the ignition, as it could result in loss of steering control or a locked steering wheel.

Running off the Pavement: If your wheels unintentionally leave the pavement, avoid making sudden steering or swerving maneuvers to get back on the road. Ease off the gas pedal and gently apply the brakes. Once your vehicle has slowed, check for any traffic behind you and cautiously steer back onto the pavement.

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Vehicle Approaching Head-on in Your Lane: Reduce your speed, pull over to the right, and sound your horn to alert the other driver. Avoid turning into the left lane as the other driver may correct their course, leading to a head-on collision.

Stalling on Railroad Tracks: In the event of a stalled vehicle on the tracks, release your seat belt and evacuate the vehicle, ensuring everyone else does the same. Move away from the tracks, running at a 45-degree angle in the direction of the oncoming train but away from the tracks themselves. If no trains are approaching, open your window to listen and attempt to restart the engine. If restarting fails, shift the vehicle into neutral and push it off the tracks.

Entering Water: If your vehicle goes into water, it will float for a period, giving you time to escape before it sinks. Release your seat belt and exit through a window. Avoid opening the door, as it could cause water to rush in and submerge the car on top of you.

In the event that your vehicle sinks before you can exit, position yourself in the back seat. As the vehicle submerges, the engine’s weight will pull the front down, creating an air pocket in the back. Take a breath and exit through a window when the vehicle settles. Exhale in small breaths through your nose or lips as you rise to the surface. Do not hold your breath tightly or attempt to forcefully exhale; allow the air to escape naturally.

Fire: If you see smoke coming from under the hood, safely pull off the road and park your vehicle. Turn off the ignition and move away from the car. Call the fire department as attempting to extinguish the fire yourself is dangerous.

Blocked Vision: If your hood suddenly opens or your windshield becomes obstructed, roll down the side window to improve visibility. Activate your emergency lights and carefully move off the road to a safe parking spot.

Remember, don’t panic in any emergency situation. Remaining calm and thinking rationally enhances your chances of responding effectively.

Test Your Knowledge

Before moving on to Chapter 11, test your understanding of Chapter 10 by answering these questions:

  1. What should you do if you miss an expressway exit?
  2. What are expressway entrance ramps used for?
  3. What should you do if an entrance ramp is short?
  4. When should you signal that you are exiting an expressway?
  5. What should you check for when you leave an expressway?
  6. Why is expressway driving different from normal driving?
  7. What is the main reason night driving is more difficult than daytime driving?
  8. Driving within the range of your headlights indicates you can stop your vehicle within approximately how many feet?
  9. What should you do if you are blinded by headlights from an approaching vehicle?
  10. Is it best to keep your headlights on high beam or low beam when there is fog, rain, or falling snow?
  11. Which direction should you turn your steering wheel to recover from a skid?
  12. How should you use your brake pedal on a slippery road?
  13. What is the most important rule to remember in any emergency situation?
  14. What should you do if one of your tires blows out?
  15. What is the first thing you should do if your brakes fail?
  16. What should you do if your wheels move off the pavement?

Remember to review your answers and refer back to this chapter as needed. Congratulations on completing Chapter 10!

Continue to Chapter 11

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