Column submitted by Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard
As Michigan residents, we know our winters are unpredictable. This year, the temperatures have fluctuated greatly, and sadly, we have already seen tragedies here in Oakland County as a result of dangerous weather conditions. Our residents need to take necessary precautions when going out in winter weather, whether it is for recreational purposes on an ice-covered body of water, snowmobiling, or driving on winter roads. One good rule of thumb to always keep in mind is “When in doubt, don’t go out”.
Low temperatures and snowfall will make for dangerous driving conditions on our roads. Prior to departure, you must thoroughly clear your vehicle; all windows, mirrors, and headlights, of snow and ice. Failing to fully clear windows, mirrors and headlights results in poor visibility for you, the driver, while fully clearing all other lights and side markers is critical to allow other drivers to see and react to your signals. Also, your license plate needs to be clear and legible for lawful operation of the vehicle.
The posted speed limit does not necessarily apply in inclement weather, so incorporating extra drive time into your travel plans is essential, as you must reduce your speed on icy roads. Maintaining a safe distance from other vehicles is critical if you or another driver lose control of your vehicle. A collision is less likely to occur if there is an ample amount of space between you based on the conditions. While it is wise to carry a cell phone in case of an emergency, it is best to not use it while driving. Distractions such as cell phone use, eating food, or radio adjustments account for the majority of automobile accidents that occur.
On Oakland County’s lakes, ponds, streams, and trails, there are abundant winter recreational opportunities. Whether ice fishing, skating, or snowmobiling, you must use caution. There is no ice that is 100% safe. Ice should be at least 5 inches thick minimum for general use (fisherman, ice skaters, and foot traffic), and 8 inches thick minimum for travel by snowmobile or Off Road Vehicle (ORV). Check the ice thickness with an ice spud, auger, or cordless drill. Snowmobiles, ORVs and vehicles on the ice increase your risk of falling through, especially at night. Many accidents occur when operators are driving at a high rate of speed and are unable to slow or stop in time to avoid open water or unsafe ice. Signs of unsafe ice include: moving water near a stream, river, unseen spring or inlet, slushy areas, depressions in the snow, heavy snow, or white or black colored ice.
If you go out on the ice, try to take a partner with you, or at least make sure you leave a travel plan with someone who can call for help if you do not return. Check with someone who has experience with a particular lake or pond before you venture out on the ice. Plan ahead for an emergency by bringing safety items which may include: cell phone, whistle, rope, ice pick or awls, screw driver, hand flares, flashlight, and a throwable PFD. Dress appropriately for changing weather conditions.
If you hear the ice crack or detect unsafe ice you should stay spread out, immediately lie down (which will distribute your weight), and crawl back to safer ice by the same way you came. If someone falls through the ice, do not run to the hole. First call 911 and get help on the way and then use a pole, branch, rope or any other handy object, which can be extended to the victim from a safe position. You cannot help if you also become a victim.
If you fall through the ice, try not to panic, as this will only hinder your self-rescue actions. Call out for help and kick your feet while getting your hands, and then arms, up onto safer ice. This is when the ice pick or screwdriver will help you with your self-rescue by digging it into the ice to help you pull. Continue to “swim” up onto the ice far enough to crawl or “roll-out” to safer ice.
Snowmobiling is also a popular and fun wintertime activity which comes with it, inherent dangers. Please observe the following rules of snowmobile safety which could prevent a terrible tragedy. Always keep your machine in top mechanical condition, making sure your head and taillights are fully functional, as they should be on at all times when riding. Never ride alone and avoid, if possible, crossing frozen bodies of water. If you do cross on a body of water, never operate in a single file. Always wear insulated boots and protective clothing including a helmet, gloves and eye protection. Always look for and avoid depressions in the snow and always be alert to avoid fences and low strung wires. Never operate on a street or highway, and when approaching an intersection, come to a complete stop, raise off the seat, and look for traffic.
I cannot stress enough that observing “safety first” in all of our activities, whether it’s driving, ice fishing, or snowmobiling, can help prevent a routine or special event from becoming a horrible tragedy. For more safety information on these or other topics, please check our website at www.oaklandsheriff.com, or like us on Facebook at Oakland County Sheriff’s Office.