When most of the country hears the term “winter driving hazards,” they tend to think of heavy snowfall, black ice, torrential downpours or blizzards. In Southern California (other than in mountainous regions), we do not usually experience the types of winter driving hazards of most of the nation. Most Southern California drivers are used to warm weather and clear skies, and the occasional downpour.
That being said, winter in this part of the state can still be hazardous to those driving in poor weather conditions. The number of car accidents usually spikes when the rain hits, or when the winter weather rolls in. Drivers in Southern California do need to be prepared for and take caution when driving in any type of winter conditions. Even a minor rainfall, particularly early in the season, can pose a serious risk.
Conditions That Can Make California Roads Hazardous in Winter
Our winter road conditions may not necessarily be as extreme as those seen in the Midwest or back east, but the driving conditions we face in winter are capable of causing serious injury or death. In addition to snow and ice at higher elevations, the following are a few of the winter hazards you may encounter while driving in Southern California:
Slick roads: Oil and other fluids that have leaked onto the roads in the past year will suddenly be brought to the surface making roads extremely slick. Slick roads can be quite difficult to navigate and drivers are likely to find their ability to control or stop their vehicle in situations like this may be severely hampered.
Flash flooding: Flash flooding usually occurs when an area gets heavy rainfall within a very short period of time. The quick downpour can cause low-lying areas, such as rivers, dry lakes, washes and catch basins to flood with little warning. In some instances, flash flooding can also result in heavy debris flows, causing serious damage to vehicles, homes, bridges and roads.
Mudslides and rockslides: Mudslides and rockslides are other hazards you should be aware of when driving in Southern California during the winter. It is not uncommon for hillsides, particularly those that have been scorched by fires earlier in the year, to give way after it rains. Without proper ground coverage, dry hillsides can easily become saturated and unstable. In some instances this can cause the hillside to give way, resulting in a mudslide or rockslide.
During one of the area’s most recent storms, CNN reported several homes ended up being buried up to the roof in mud and debris. A few days later the LA Times reported that one Southern California freeway had to be closed for hours after a debris flow trapped unsuspecting motorists. Portions of the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs along the Southern California coastline, are sometimes closed following mudslides.
High winds: High winds are another hazard drivers must contend with when traveling in Southern California during the winter season. In some areas, the winds are strong enough to topple big rigs with ease and smaller vehicles have trouble staying on the road. In some instances, high winds force the closure of major highways. High winds can also down trees, power lines and send debris flying through the air, making it imperative that drivers in these conditions remain alert.
Heavy fog: During the winter months, drivers may experience conditions where heavy fog brings about low or zero visibility. This can be very dangerous to drivers, particularly those traveling at high rates of speed. When heavy fog is combined with rain or winds, it will not only snarl up traffic, but it can make safe driving close to impossible.
Safety Tips for Winter Driving in Southern California
If you are planning to visit Southern California, or do any driving in hazardous winter conditions, you will need to be prepared. Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind when driving in Southern California during the winter:
- Be sure your vehicle has both a first aid kit and emergency roadside kit
- Pack blankets, jackets and an extra change of clothes for each person
- Bring a cell phone and cell phone car charger
- Plan out your route, as well as at least one alternative route, ahead of time
- Drive smart and slow down when it rains, visibility is poor or winds are high
- If you can avoid traveling in poor winter conditions, then do so
- Get your vehicle inspected and any maintenance issues addressed before hitting the road
- Fill your vehicle’s gas tank, so you are less likely to get stranded in bad weather
- Keep a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front of you
- If you are traveling to mountainous regions, bring chains
Planning ahead can help save a lot of heartache and stress when driving in dangerous winter conditions. Exercising caution while driving can also mean the difference between you and your passengers arriving safely at your intended destination and you being stranded, or worse yet, involved in an accident.