Driving Tips


1. Slow Down: If the speed limit says "45 MPH" that's the maximum you should drive - on dry pavement. In winter, smart drivers go slower than the posted speed limit. It's really that simple… SLOW DOWN. Here’s perspective: Driving from North Pole to Fairbanks is about 12 miles. At 60 MPH, it takes 12 minutes. If you slow down just 5 miles per hour (and actually do the speed limit), it adds almost exactly one minute to your trip. Is an additional 60 seconds worth saving a life?

2. Stay Back: Alaska's driving laws suggest that you stay back "one car length for every 10 miles per hour" of your speed. A car is about 15’ long. If you’re driving 40 MPH, you should be stay 60’ behind the car ahead of you … in the summer.

In the winter, stay back at least two car lengths for every 10 miles per hour of your speed. That’s 120’ back when you’re doing 40 MPH. The bottom line is that cars just don't turn, or brake as well in the winter. They tend to slide instead. Smart drivers compensate by staying further back.

3. Practice Sliding in Deserted Parking Lots: Face it, a good bit of your Alaskan driving will be spent sliding on ice, out of control. You better get used to it – and learn how to survive it. Practice is key. Before driving on frozen Alaska roads, find an empty/icy parking lot – and practice losing control of your car. Slam on the brakes. Turn too quickly. Stomp the gas. Practice turning into a slide. Turning into a slide isn’t easy, and frankly it’s a bit scary at first. It is also absolutely necessary to regain control. Take your kid/spouse out, tonight.

Of course, be careful when you do this. Use an empty lot. Avoid other people/cars/structures. Wear a seat belt. Get permission from the lot owner. Don’t be stupid. Always consult a driving instructor before trying this.

4. Buy Good Tires: Blizzak tires get better traction than just about any other. Buy them at:

A. American Tire: 219 3rd Ave. Fairbanks, AK 99701: (907) 452-5145. A set of #4 Blizzak passenger car tires, mounted and balanced cost about $500. Studded tires, also mounted and balanced, cost about $400.

B. Tire Distribution Systems (TDS): 3601 South Cushman St. Fairbanks, AK 99701: (907) 452-7131. A set of #4 Blizzak passenger car tires, mounted and balanced cost about $500. Studded tires, also mounted and balanced, cost about $500.

C. Sears Tire Center: 3115 Airport Way Fairbanks, AK 99719: (907) 474-4450. A set of #4 Blizzak passenger car tires, mounted and balanced costs about $430. Studded tires, also mounted and balanced, costs about $350.

If you don’t buy Blizzaks, studded tires also work well on icy roads. Consider “Siping” your tires, having small slits cut on their tread. It adds to their gripping power. American Tire charges $25/ea. to sipe a tire. Be sure to change out your Blizzaks when the snow melts. Blizzaks are made of soft rubber that wears out quickly on dry roads.

Finally, "Green Diamond" tires are gaining traction (pardon the pun). They are sold in Fairbanks at Metropolitan Garage: (907) 455-7450. They have embedded carbon chunks that better grip the roadway - and apparently work year-round for safe driving. Consider a set of these tires over ordinary 'Mud/Snow" tires. They may save your life.

5. Test the Roads: When it is safe to do so – and only when it’s safe - hit the brakes at a slow speed. The goal is to see if/how you slide. Since Alaska winter driving involves a ton of sliding, getting a feel for road conditions helps you drive smarter. Never “test the roads” when it’s unsafe, around other cars, when you have passengers, or when you’re going down a hill. The idea is to keep control of your vehicle, while learning how slick the roads are under you. Avoid situations where you may end up in a ditch or hurt yourself/somebody else. Practice this with a qualified driving instructor before giving it a shot on your own.

6. Know the Weather: Check the weather before you leave home. If it’s expected to get colder, or worse - warmer - you must know this in advance. Extra precaution is required when the weather is changing. Get a thermometer for your car. You can find them for $10 at most auto stores. The difference between 31° and 33° is critical.

7. Never Assume You’re Right: When entering an intersection with the right-of-way, never assume you are right. Always assume that other drivers will slide through the intersection. Always assume that other drivers are drunk, or worse - speaking on their cell phones. Teach your kids to drive defensively. It’s sad when folks who were “right” get maimed by an idiot who was out of control. You (or your kids) remain "right" and maimed - while the idiot remains an idiot. Would you prefer to be right or healthy?

8. Read The Alaska DMV Manual: Download and actually read the Alaska DMV manual. It is well-written, and contains a ton of good advice about how to survive Alaskan roads.

9. Drive a Big Car: Tiny cars get people killed. Spend the extra money on gasoline and buy as-big-a-car as you can afford. My favorite is a 1974 Ford F-250 pickup. They always “win” car wrecks. I can’t remember the last time an injured client was in a 1970’s Ford F-250. There is just something safe about 6500 lbs. of solid steel. The worst cars are Geo Metro’s. They always seem to “lose” wrecks. Oddly, I can't recall the last time a person was hurt in a tiny little Honda Civic - they have more airbags than about any other compact. BOTTOM LINE: If you love your kid/spouse – buy him/her an old Ford pickup - preferably an ugly one (so it won’t be stolen). "Ugly" and alive is better than "cute" and maimed.

10. Take Driving Lessons: Everyone should take a formal driving course. It’s not just for newbies and kids. Seriously - actually take professional driving instruction. Driving Lessons make a great birthday present for your spouse or teenager... They can also beat down your insurance rates. Fairbanks offers at least four driving schools, all qualified to help you survive Alaska’s icy winter roads. They are:

A. Center for Employment Education. They charge $60/hr. The "final test" is $50. Sign up for as many hours as you can afford. Surf to www.cee-ak.net. Contact: Lee Christensen. Phone: (907) 479-8451;

B. Cherokee Riders MC. Phone: (907) 455-0010;

C. North Star Driving School. Phone: (907) 490-2523; and

D. Northern Lights Driving School. Ken Leary. $70/hr. Phone: (907) 457-3910. Alternate phone: (775) 225-6309. “Accident Free Since 1981.” Email to: kkleary@yahoo.com.

11. Warm Up Your Car: Windows have to be clear before you get on the road. How many times have we seen folks, with a scraper in one hand, peering through a little clear spot on their windshield as they drive? It’s just stupid. Furthermore, it’s dangerous. Be sure to let your car warm up, and the windshield clear, before you get on the roads. Also, turn on the defroster (hot) while the engine is still cold - and let your windshield warm up with the engine. If you turn hot air on a cold windshield, you'll crack it. If you have a cracked windshield, contact Novus Windshield Repair: (907) 456-6301.

12. Don’t Buy/Drive White or Gray Cars: Visibility is the key to safe driving in Alaska. Don’t buy or drive a car that “blends in” with the snow and ice-fog. Avoid white and gray cars. Opt instead for the truly obnoxious colors - fluorescent red, yellow, orange and green are the best. Yeah, I know these colors aren’t preferred. At the same time, keeping your family alive is sometimes inconvenient. Deal with it.

13. Pack Safety Gear: Always carry, at a minimum: (1) #3 flares; (2) Wool socks/mittens; (3) a silver reflective blanket; (4) #20 waterproof matches; (5) a down jacket; (6) a scarf; (7) a small shovel; (8) a knife; and (9) #1 6’ section of ½ clear plastic tubing (siphon). Of course, you could go the extra mile, taking $50, a gallon of water, a cell phone, a gun, ammo, an axe, sand and a book on “Surviving the Arctic.” It’s all good. Alternatively, go to Sam's Club and spend $30 on a "Driving Safety Kit." Are your kids worth $30?

14. Make an Insurance Deal With Your Kids: When I turned 16 and got my driver's license, my dad made me a deal: “I’ll pay for your car insurance until you get your first moving violation.” Dad was smart. At 45 years old, I’ve yet to get my first moving violation (knock on wood). The bottom line is that this deal is both fair and helpful. It gives your kids a reason to just slow down, and ignore their stupid friends. Your kids' financial well-being is at stake. Consider making this deal with your kids.

15. Explain the "Real" Costs of Driving: Kids think that the "cost" of driving the family car is only what they pay for gas. Explain this fallacy. Sit down with your kid, pencil and paper in hand. Walk him/her through all the costs of driving: (A) gasoline; (B) wearing out the vehicle (depreciation); (C) oil; (4) insurance; (D) tires; and (E) maintenance. Here's what it costs to drive 100 miles (round-trip Fairbanks to Harding Lake) in a $20,000 car that gets 18 miles per gallon, lasts 100,000 miles (12,000 miles/year), needs an oil change every 3,000 miles and maintenance every 5,000 miles:

 

A. Gasoline at $3.10/gallon: 

$17.22
 

B. Depreciation (20,000/100,000*100):     

$20.00
 

C. Oil (Jiffylube, $40/visit, every 3,000 miles):

$1.33
 

D. Insurance ($1,200/yr.):

$10.00
 

E. Maintenance (Tune/Wash, $1,000/yr.):    

$8.33
 

Total Cost For 100 Miles:    

$56.88
 

 

16. Don’t Talk On Your Cell Phone: Talking on a cell phone while driving reduces your reaction speeds to those of a 70 year old driver. Talking on a cell phone is like having a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit. It’s stupid. Don’t do it. Pull over, then chat.

17. Texting: Don't even think about texting while driving. Do you really need to be told this one? Smack your kid on the head if you ever find him/her texting while driving.

18. Never Drink/Eat & Drive: We all know that drinking and driving is stupid. A DUI costs more than $4,000 in attorney fees. It also raises your auto insurance rates by more than 400%. You will go to jail (it's mandatory). The average cost of your first DUI is $22,740. (DMV Manual, p.12) Many employers won't hire you once you’ve had a DUI. We recommend that if you've had anything to drink in the last 24 hours, simply don't drive.

19. Let Off the Gas When Spinning: When a tire spins, it loses all traction. When you start to “spin-out” the worst thing you can do, is give it more gas. Instead, let off the gas. Allow the wheels to stop, re-gripping the roadway. Inexperienced drivers oftentimes think that “giving it more gas” will get them moving through a slick spot. In fact, the exact opposite is usually true. Remember, spinning your tires is the quickest way to the ditch.

20. Speeding: Kids will be kids. They will always push the family car by speeding and being generally stupid behind the wheel. Explain to your kids that if they absolutely must be stupid, then do it up a hill. They will get the same acceleration sensation - and yet they can stop if/when they must. Remind them to never speed down hills - for the same reasons.

21. Turn Into a Slide: When you start sliding - and you will slide on Alaskan roads - train yourself to turn into the direction of your slide. (e.g. If you start sliding to your right, turn your wheel to the right.) It seems wrong the first few times you do it, but it is the quickest way to regain control of your vehicle.