Avalanche Blaster John Stimberis

Winter Driving Tips From a Safety Pro

John Stimberis knows snow. He’s the Washington State Department of Transportation avalanche forecast and control supervisor for Snoqualmie, Chinook and White passes. With winter approaching, here are his tips for keeping safe on winter roads.

All winter, Stimberis (pictured above driving a snowcat above Interstate 90 through the Cascade Mountains) analyzes the crystalized structure and water content of snow layers to predict whether they are likely to collapse from the weight of new snowstorms. When conditions point to danger — about six to eight times per season — his crew sets explosives and fires artillery shells to bring massive slabs of the white stuff off mountainsides while the highways are closed.

What’s most important for safe winter driving?

“Good tires. That’s the foundation. Whether you have all-wheel drive or not, you need to carry some type of traction device, like chains or whatever is appropriate for your vehicle. Obey the variable speed limit signs. Even if it does not seem so bad at the sign, conditions change quickly in the mountains. Keep a small shovel in your car, a blanket, a couple of water bottles and snacks. And be patient.”

What do you always keep in your glove box?

“An extra pair of gloves and an ice scraper.”

How far in advance do you know you are going to conduct an avalanche-control mission?

“It varies based on the intensity of each storm. We can have a pretty good idea when we see a storm coming, but we won’t plan the mission until within about 24 hours to be certain. We don’t want people to feel our information on closures isn’t reliable. As far as the duration of the mission, our standard is 30 minutes to 2 hours. But when ongoing storm events are really intense, we’ll sometimes get closures that last hours or even days.”

Where are the best places to find information on conditions and delays?

“I subscribe to WSDOT’s email alerts. When my counterpart at Stevens Pass schedules a mission, he’ll send me a courtesy text to let me know about it. But I’ll often get my email alert before I hear about it from him. I also use the WSDOT app, and if I’m at my computer, I’ll look at the traffic cameras. There are also signs on the highways and the highway-advisory radio station. As soon as that information is known by our dispatch system, the information is out there.”

Stay safe with more winter driving tips from AAA Washington.

–Written by Rob Bhatt
–Top image courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation  

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.

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