I drive a small car that’s low to the ground. I drove from Vancouver to Kelowna, B.C., on the Coquihalla Highway after Christmas. There are two lanes in each direction, but there were long stretches where there was only one lane free of packed snow. Sometimes that clear lane was in the middle of the two lanes. There were places where I couldn’t go much faster than 70 or 80 km/h (the speed limit is 120 km/h) without starting to either slide or hit snow. I had cars on my tail, some flashing high beams and honking to make me go faster. I pulled over as best I could, but they had a tough time passing in the snowy lane. If I can’t physically go the speed limits on icy or snowy roads, could I be charged with blocking traffic? And if the clear lane is the left lane or in between the two lanes, can I get charged with driving over the lines or being in the left lane? – Lynne, Vancouver
When the roads are lousy, don’t be afraid to slow down – going the speed limit could actually get you a ticket in British Columbia, says the RCMP.
“Safety first,” says RCMP Corporal Ronda McEwen, with E division traffic services, in an e-mail. “The posted speed limit is the maximum in ideal conditions so, in many cases, travelling at a reduced speed is very much appropriate and required.”
Driving too fast when roads are snowy or slippery or when you can’t see due to fog or snow could get you a $167 fine and 3 demerit points in British Columbia – even if you’re driving at or below the speed limit.
If the speed limit is 120 km/h but you can only go 70 km/h without losing control, then that’s the speed you have to go, McEwen says.
“If a driver travels at a speed that is appropriate given the road conditions, they will not be ticketed,” McEwen says.
The rules vary by province. In Ontario, you could be charged with careless driving if you’re going the speed limit in lousy conditions – but it’s not likely, says OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt.
“Careless driving is a pretty high threshold,” Schmidt says. “The speed limit is the maximum for ideal conditions – in less than ideal conditions, we don’t want people driving dangerously or carelessly.”
Drivers going slower than the speed limit should be moving to the right if they can – but they probably wouldn’t be charged with going too slow, Schmidt says.
“If the lane’s blocked, then obviously they can’t move over,” Schmidt says. “There’s no minimum speed limit, but we don’t want drivers impeding traffic or putting themselves at risk by driving at a unusually low speed.”
And when there’s only one clear lane?
“If only one lane is clear, then that is the appropriate lane of travel for safety reasons,” says McEwen.
British Columbia passed a law last year to keep drivers out of the left lane unless they’re overtaking and passing another car. But the law doesn’t apply if the right lane is not driveable, McEwan says.
“Travelling in the left lane is permitted when the right lane is not safe due to debris or road conditions,” she says.
When there’s only one clear lane, it might be the safest lane to drive in – or, it might be the most dangerous, says Young Drivers of Canada general manager Angelo DiCicco.
“When driving in the winter, you want to get the most traction possible – but the hard part is discerning where that is,” says DiCicco. “Sometimes the clear pathway is where the black ice is hidden and there might be traction in the snowy lane if the snow is fluffier and not packed down.”
A driver with experience on winter roads can usually tell which lane is better. And often, drivers just follow the lead of the car in front of them.
“So, you see if the guy in front of you is having issues,” DiCicco says. “If there’s nobody in front of you, you may have to lead the way for the drivers behind you.”
If the driver in front of you is going too slow, you can pass them – but accelerating in that snowy passing lane could cause torque steer and veer you into the side of the car you’re passing.
Or, you may discover that there was a reason they were driving at that speed. You may realize that you can’t go much faster than they were without losing control, even with four-wheel or all-wheel-drive, DiCicco says.
“It could be that the guy going in front of you actually has great winter tires but there’s a layer or ice,” DiCicco says. “We all just want to get home safe at the end of the day. If it means you’re going 80 instead of 100 and it costs you 10 minutes – you know what? It’s still a good holiday gift for society.”
ButMcEwen warns that if you know your car doesn’t handle well on winter roads, maybe you should buy a bus or a plane ticket.
“One must determine if they have the appropriate vehicle to travel on certain roads,” McEwen says. “If it is not safe, alternative methods of travel should be considered.”
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