Come rain or fog or sunshine: Tips for safe summer driving

Which are the two deadliest months of the year on Canadian roads? You’re thinking, “Holidays, snowstorms—must be December and January, right?” Wrong. The “right” answer is July and August—proof that summertime driving also has its share of dangers.

The weather’s absolutely perfect. The road is dry as a bone. Life is good... so you step on the gas a bit too hard. According to Transport Canada, two out of three fatal collisions on this country’s roads happen under these circumstances. Moreover, summertime can also mean a sudden downpour, a fog bank appearing out of nowhere, or the blinding glare of the sun on your windshield. In short, the risk of disaster is always there during the warm season. Here are some tips and tricks for lowering that risk and ensuring safe summertime road trips.

When the fog rolls in

There is a golden rule of summer driving, which we won’t be afraid to repeat again and again here: slow down.

So let’s all repeat: slow down!

Reducing your speed when approaching a pea-soup-thick patch of fog is all the more important because you don’t know what could be hiding in it. Another vehicle that has just come to a stop? A deer crossing the road?

Your speed must therefore be the same as the visibility: reduced.

What’s more, since a fog bank is one big mass of humidity, the road surface underneath it is likely to be wet, and therefore slippery. Which means emergency braking could be a problem. But because you’ve reduced your speed, braking probably won’t be necessary, right?

If you think that activating your emergency flashers in the fog is the thing to do, think again. “They’re called emergency flashers for a reason: they’re reserved for emergencies,” says CAA-Quebec spokesperson Philippe Saint-Pierre. “They mustn’t become a reflex when driving in fog.”

Here’s why. In a reduced-visibility situation, if other drivers see that you’ve turned on your emergency flashers, they might think you’ve had a breakdown and pulled over onto the shoulder. Which means they might attempt an unnecessary, and possibly dangerous, avoidance manoeuvre. “Always use your emergency flashers sparingly,” Saint-Pierre warns. “You’re better off turning on your headlights, which will also turn on your taillights. With those red lights on, you’re just as likely to be seen by a driver following you as you are with your flashers on.”

Some vehicles are equipped with fog lights, which, when properly adjusted, can be very useful. If their beams are aimed horizontally or downward, they are doing their job—which is to light the road just ahead of you in the fog. Under no circumstances should they shine upward: because their beams are very powerful, they would only compound the problem—much like an oncoming vehicle with its high beams on. All you’ll see in front of you is an opaque, bright white screen through which you can’t make out a thing.

At your leisure, you can check to see whether your fog lights are properly aligned. Mr. Saint-Pierre explains how: “Wait until after dark, park your vehicle close to a wall on a level surface, and turn on all your lights. If the fog lights shine upward—or worse, if their beams cross the daytime running lights’ beams—you’ll know they need to be adjusted.”

While on the subject of fog lights: as their name indicates, they’re made to be used in foggy conditions. Once the fog dissipates, you need to turn them off so as not to blind oncoming drivers.

Here comes the sun

You’re rolling along peacefully under clear blue skies. The sound system is pumping out your favourite tune. The sun is about to set. You round a curve and suddenly, blindness: the sun’s rays strike the windshield and it’s as if the road isn’t there any more. Here again, the prime directive is to start by slowing down.

Let’s all repeat: slow down!

The “golden hour,” as it’s known, may be the prime time for a photographer looking for that perfect shot in natural light, but to motorists it means something else entirely. When driving eastward in the morning or westward at the end of the day, it’s synonymous with seriously reduced visibility.

“If you’re blinded by the sun’s glare, slowing down is the best possible tactic,” Mr. Saint-Pierre advises. “If people start braking suddenly ahead of you, you’ll have a longer distance in which to stop.”

In this situation, besides slowing down, you need to make sure you’re visible to other drivers. If you’re blinded by sunlight, that means everyone else probably is as well, so if you all turn on your headlights (and taillights), you’ll be more easily seen.

If you’ve been driving for a while—remember, in theory, you should be taking breaks every two hours—these few minutes would be a good time to pull into a rest area, stop for gas, or have a bite to eat.

Yes, sunglasses and your car’s sun visor can help reduce glare, but if you’ve neglected to clean your windshield (both inside and out), it will behave like a prism when the sunlight hits it, worsening the effect of the glare.
If you can’t remember the last time you wiped down the inside of your windshield with a moist cloth, now is the time to do it. Don’t wait for the next “golden hour,” when a nasty film of cigarette smoke, fingerprints or other foreign deposits could foul up your field of view.

Looks like rain: Ten commandments for driving in the wet

What’s the number one rule for safe driving during a rain shower or electrical storm? You guessed it: slow down.

So once again, let’s all repeat: slow down!

There are nine more commandments to be obeyed if you want to avoid problems in wet weather:

  • Turn off the cruise control. If your wheels start hydroplaning, your first reflex—and it’s the correct one—would normally be to take your foot off the gas. If the cruise control is on, however, it will detect a loss of power and attempt to compensate. The result will be a sudden acceleration, which is the last thing you want.
  • Lower the risk of hydroplaning. If there are noticeable ruts down the middle of the highway, shining in the rain, avoid driving in them, even if it means staying a little off-centre in your lane.
  • When driving in the city, danger lurks at intersections, where leaked vehicle fluids can practically turn the road surface into a skating rink. Be alert: when approaching a stop sign or red light, brake sooner and more gently than usual.
  • Your daytime running lights aren’t enough in the rain: depending on vehicle makes and models, the taillights don’t always come on at the same time. You should turn on your headlights to make sure you’ll be nicely visible to drivers both behind and in front of you—even in a driving rainstorm.
  • Make sure your windshield wipers are in good shape. CAA-Quebec recommends that you put new ones on after a year of use. Why? Because the rubber dries out, and instead of clearing your view out the windshield, the blades can skip or chatter, and leave annoying streaks. You don’t need that extra stress when driving in the rain. “Thirty dollars to make sure you can see properly isn’t a major investment!” Mr. Saint-Pierre says.
  • Steer clear of potholes. When they’re filled with water, it’s very hard to know how deep they are. If you can’t avoid running into a pothole, at least make sure you don’t brake when your wheels hit it.
  • Keep your distance. Respect the three-second rule with respect to the car ahead of you (pick a reference marker and when the other car passes it, you must be able to count “one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three” before you pass the same marker). Are the conditions really bad? Keep counting: “one thousand and four, one thousand and five, one thousand and six.” In an emergency, you’ll have more time to react and perform an avoidance manoeuvre.
  • If it’s raining so hard that your vision is impaired to the point that driving becomes dangerous, choose a safe place to pull off the road. If you’re on the highway, try to get to the next rest area. Otherwise, park on the shoulder as far as possible from the roadway.
  • Make sure your tires are in good condition. A thorough inspection will reveal any cracks, foreign matter or unequal wear. Check the tire pressure every month, and keep your tires inflated according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. Remember: an under-inflated tire will wear out faster, increase your fuel consumption, and fail to channel away water properly.
  • If your winter tires have just completed their last cold season and you’re tempted to leave them on for the summer, our advice couldn’t be clearer: Don’t do it. CAA-Quebec has tested braking with winter tires (new ones, to boot!) in summer conditions, and the consequences are dramatic: stopping distances are up to one-third longer than with summer tires. “In warm weather, winter tires have nowhere near the same grip and stability as do tires designed for summer driving,” Mr. Saint-Pierre explains.

Let’s all repeat one more time…

Having said all that, just because it’s not rainy or foggy out doesn’t mean a guaranteed safe drive in summer. “You can’t take anything for granted,” Mr. Saint-Pierre concludes. “Anything can happen, so you want to stay alert at all times, use your peripheral vision, and stay at a safe distance from other drivers.”

And, of course, at the risk of repeating ourselves one last time: slow down!

By Nadine Filion