Watching For ‘Spray’ And Other Tips For Navigating Icy Roads

By Austin Jenkins

The Northwest’s deep freeze is over for most of the region, but snow remains in some areas and winter’s just arriving. That means more cold temps and potentially icy commutes in the months ahead.

Kent Hitchings is a sergeant with the Washington State Patrol. He’s got more than 20 years on the job. And he has one word for winter driving in the lowlands of Puget Sound: “awful.” Hitchings says winter road conditions here are treacherous, even compared to his native Iowa.

Kent Hitchings: “It was just a different type of snow. The wet, damp snow here combining with our freezing level temperatures just kind of makes that instant ice. It’s just a challenge.”

Instant ice. It’s what Northwest lowland winters serve up on a regular basis – especially on bridges, overpasses and on-and-off ramps. That’s when cars go slipping and sliding. In the moment, we often panic and brake or steer too hard and end up in the ditch – or worse. The trick on ice is to apply a light touch and not over-compensate. But what if conditions suddenly change and you’re driving at freeway speeds.

Kent Hitchings: “It’s tough. You’re basically going to have to ride that one out.”

Which is why Sgt. Hitchings and his colleague, Trooper Darren Wright, say drivers need to do a better job of anticipating the conditions. Wright has patrolled Washington’s Snoqualmie Pass area for nearly 23 years and says he’s never run off the road.

Darren Wright: “That leads me to believe that almost all of the collisions that are blamed on the conditions, the snow and the ice are preventable.”

Trooper Wright says his magic formula for not crashing is: drive the conditions and buy a set of good tires. This time of year the Patrol uses ultra-grip winter tires, but not studs. Trooper Wright also offered a couple of handy tips. If you’re not sure if the road is wet or icy, look to see if there’s road spray coming off the tires of nearby cars.

Trooper Wright: “It’s not foolproof, but if you see a wet road and there’s no spray coming up there’s a very good chance that it is frozen.”

Tip two is a state of mind: give yourself permission to be the slow poke in the slow lane.

Darren Wright: “There’s many times I’ll be doing anywhere between 5 and 10, 15 miles per hour down the freeway because that’s what the conditions warrant.”

Advice from a guy who’s paid to speed.

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