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13 Tips for Driving in Wildfire Smoke

Updated on: 9/10/2020

driving through smokeEvery year, cities, towns, and communities suffer from the effects of massive wildfires on the West Coast. Not only are we seeing the impact of these fires, but the heavy and dangerous smoke that spreads as a result.

Experts say that smoke from wildfires can rise three to five miles in the air, then travel up to thousands of miles. 

With many people unaccustomed to the smoky conditions, police are reminding all drivers to change their driving habits accordingly. 

How to Drive Through Smoke

Much like any type of weather event or precipitation, drivers should take caution when they encounter smoky conditions.

Smoky, hazy, or wet road conditions all can spell disaster for drivers, and those that don’t slow down and use common sense are ripe for a car accident. Law enforcement agencies and safety advocates recommend you:

  1. Slow down: Practice good defensive driving and give people around you time to respond. You will never regret driving too slow.
  2. Roll up the windows: This should be common sense, but keep the windows up and use the “recirculate air” feature so that dirty air form the outside isn’t funneled in.
  3. Drive predictably: While you should always do so, driving predictably when there’s decreased visibility is very important. Avoid slamming on the brakes, and always use your turn signals. Don’t tailgate.
  4. Don’t use your hazards: While it may seem like a good idea, at slow speeds and low visibility it may appear that you are stopped on the road.
  5. Avoid driving: If you know a certain area has particularly bad smoke or low visibility, try to avoid it. Check weather reports and TV news to see where the conditions and traffic are the worst. 
  6. air circulationTurn on your headlights: Even in the middle of the day, having your headlights on allows other drivers to see your car more easily. At night, use your low beams and turn on fog lights (if possible).
  7. Watch for livestock and wildlife: In rural areas, wildfires and smoke may have forced animals onto or near roadways.
  8. Watch for emergency vehicles: Slow down and move over to pass.
  9. Don’t drive with a flat tire or locked brakes: Sparks coming off your car could start a fire in the current dry conditions.
  10. Don’t throw cigarette butts out: In the dry conditions, the lit butts could start a fire.
  11. Avoid driving on dry grass: The heat from your vehicle’s exhaust can ignite a fire.
  12. Pullover: If the conditions truly are so bad that you feel unsafe driving, pull completely off the road, and turn on your hazards. Remain in the car and try and contact help. 
  13. Pack food and water: If you are driving through a particularly bad stretch, bring enough provisions for you and everyone in the vehicle. Allow plenty of time to reach your destination.

Crack a Window After A While

If you have been driving through heavy smoke for a long period of time — with the air circulation setting on — you may want to crack a window.

According to the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California, carbon dioxide levels can spike quickly if vents and windows are closed and the circulation setting is on. This is particularly the case in well-sealed, newer vehicles. 

The AQMD recommends that you crack the windows in your vehicle once you’ve been driving a while to prevent grogginess.

Check Your Car’s Air Filters

Obviously being in your vehicle with the air circulating is better than being outside. But air filtration systems require maintenance to keep running effectively.

Experts recommend that if you’ve done a lot of driving in or around wildfire smoke that you check your engine and cabin air filters. Falling ash can clog both of these filters and make them less effective.

You can check your air filters yourself by consulting your vehicle’s owner manual, or take your car to a mechanic to have the filters looked at. 

Don’t Wipe Wildfire Ash Off Your Car

When the smoke gets particularly bad, wildfire ash may start to fall. When it collects on your car, it can cause a problem. 

It may be tempting to try and wipe the ash off. But doing so could scratch the paint. 

If you only rinse your car off with water, it may release chemicals that are bad for the paint. Instead, South King County Fire says you should thoroughly wash your car with soap and water. Using a wax afterwards can help protect your paint in the future.

Wait until the wildfire smoke has cleared to clean the ash off your car. And if you use a blower, you’ll just spread the ash around.

How Dangerous is Wildfire Smoke?

air quality

During the Aug. 2018 wildfires in Canada and Washington that affected Seattle, the Air Quality Index reached 220 in parts of the city, a rating classified as “very unhealthy.” The closer to the wildfires you get, the worse the smoke is for your body. 

To put the current conditions in perspective, an Air Quality Index of 150 is roughly equal to smoking seven cigarettes a day. People with heart and lung problems, the elderly, and children, are particularly susceptible to the smoke.

The air in Seattle recently was worse than in Beijing, China, one of the world’s most polluted cities. 

Washington State Accident Attorneys

The attorneys at Seattle-based Davis Law Group, P.S., realize the dangers of driving through wildfire smoke. Unfortunately, car accidents may sometimes occur as a result. 

In the event that you or a family member are injured in a motor vehicle crash, contact attorney Chris Davis for legal help. Our office is standing by 24 hours a day to assist you with your situation. 

For a free case evaluation, call (206) 727-4000, use the chat feature below, or fill out the form on this page to get started.

Chris Davis
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Chris Davis is the founder of Davis Law Group, P.S. in Seattle, WA.
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