Winter accidents strain pocketbooks

Friday, December 7, 2007 | 6:12 p.m. CST; updated 7:26 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Law enforcement agencies received more than 100 emergency calls Thursday after Columbia received its first big snowfall of the season.

Though no serious injuries were reported, winter-related accidents can put a serious dent in drivers’ pocket books.

A minor “dinger” can run the driver anywhere between $1,100 and $2,500. Other damage, such as blown airbags or cracked aluminum wheels, can cost between $8,000 and $12,000. If a car has rolled over, it’s normally a total loss because air bags and windows have been blown out.

Other weather-related crashes, such as hitting a curb, can knock the suspension out from under a vehicle, causing axle or transmission damage. Though damage may not look severe, continuing to drive can cause severe drivetrain damage.

“It doesn’t take long to run the bill up,” said Kenny Cook, owner of Cook’s Body Shop.

Cook had two cars in his parking lot Friday morning that were damaged on slippery roads Thursday. Cook said he expected body shop repair traffic to increase in the coming days as drivers file insurance claims.

“Next week we’ll be swamped with writing estimates,” Cook said.

But the first bill the unlucky or unskilled winter driver receives comes from the towing company.

Carl’s Towing reported more than 100 requests for towing through Thursday night. The number of cars towed was at least twice the number they usually see, said Roxanne Hatcher, a dispatcher at the towing company. Towing costs are upward of $50 and depend on the amount of work required by the towing company, Ford said. For example, if a car slides into a ditch, the driver can count on a high towing bill.

Obviously the key is prevention, especially this winter, which is predicted to be wetter and colder than average, said Benjamin Sipprell of the National Weather Service in St. Louis.

For starters, clear the snow off your vehicle. Columbia police Sgt. Tim Moriarity reminds drivers that it is illegal to drive with an obstructed view. If snow isn’t scraped off all windows and mirrors, a driver can face a $75 ticket.

“It comes down to common sense,” Moriarity said. “A lot of people, all they do is their windshield wipers.”

Snow on the roof can slide down to obstruct vision, not to mention blind spots on the back of the vehicle.

Division Chief Gale Blomenkamp of the Boone County Fire Protection District, which responded to 21 accidents between 1:30 p.m. Thursday and 6 a.m. Friday, said part of the problem is drivers not adjusting to conditions.

“The first snow of the year, we see a lot of slide-offs, and we see a lot of accidents where people get in too big of a rush,” Blomenkamp said. “Or they don’t increase those following distances.”

“When snow starts packing, and cars start passing over this wet snow, it becomes more like ice,” Moriarity said. “That causes a more hazardous driving environment than up north, where the powdery snow gets pushed to the side.”

Icy driving conditions pose a threat to all drivers, no matter how large the vehicle is, Moriarity said. Unless there are studs or spikes on a vehicle’s tires, there won’t be much friction between rubber and road.

Cook, with the towing company, said vehicle maintenance is essential in avoiding winter weather costs.

“When you’re putting tires on after it snows, it’s too late,” Cook said. “You’ve already wrecked.”

More icy weather is expected for this weekend. Moriarity advises drivers to stock up on supplies and not to drive unless they have to.

“I would say, don’t drive unless you have to, but the reality is people are going to drive,” Moriarity said. “Give yourself more following distance, give yourself more room, no sudden movements. Slow for control.”

Even with a four-wheel drive vehicle, Moriarity said he still drives slowly in the snow. While Moriarity is well-seasoned in winter driving, he’s looking out for other drivers.

“It’s not just me I worry about,” he said. “It’s everybody else.”

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