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Tips for driving and riding during volcanic ashfall

Protect yourself and your vehicle

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The country’s second most active volcano, Taal, has just erupted. It caused a phreatic explosion which is when magma heats surface water to cause near-instantaneous evaporation of water to steam, resulting in an explosion of steam, water, ash, rock, and volcanic bombs. Winds are expected to carry this debris north towards the National Capital Region and possibly further north in Luzon.

By now, much of the northern island is coated in ash. It may seem harmless, but it is actually more dangerous than most realize. Volcanic ash is actually pulverized rock and glass from the volcano. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS) volcanic ash is abrasive, mildly corrosive, can conduct electricity when wet, and it doesn’t dissolve in water. Much like sand, it is easily scattered by the wind and can be very harmful for you if you breathe it in, and also for your motorcycle.

If you’re in an area affected by ash fall, we’ve compiled a short list of tips with regards to driving, riding, servicing, and cleaning cars and motorcycles in times like these.

1. Avoid driving or riding if you can

In affected areas, ash has coated the road surface. This ash is easily kicked up in the air by other vehicles passing by. As such, visibility will be low. Riding and driving conditions are also tricky because ash can act like ball bearings on the surface and make roads very slippery. When it gets wet, volcanic ash turns into a mud-like substance that can also be very tricky to drive on.

If you have to ride or drive, stay below 55 kilometers per hour. In heavy ash conditions, don’t follow other cars too closely and always turn on your headlights to stay visible.

2. Don’t just wipe off ash from your vehicle

Ash is very abrasive so avoid wiping it off with a rag, cloth, or sponge. Use water, preferably from a pressure washer, to wash away the ash because it will be gentler on your bike’s paintwork. A hose will do just fine if there’s decent pressure in your area.

For motorcycles, don’t just wash the body work. Use compressed air or a blower to clear the radiator (if you have one), chain, exposed gear sprockets, and disc brakes. Ash can easily get into these areas and prematurely wear these parts out. Ensure they’re free of ash before operating your motorcycle.

3. Protect yourself

Ash will be easily kicked up into the air, reducing visibility and making it difficult to breathe. Ash is very painful if it gets into your eye. It can also damage your lungs if a large amount is inhaled so protect yourself accordingly.

For those in cars, do not use your wipers to clear the windshield while they’re dry. Turn on the windshield washer and fully drench the windshield before activating the wipers. You may even use a water bottle filled with tap water to fully drench the windshield manually before you head off.

When running, avoid turning on the A/C as it may suck up ash particles and clog the cabin filter. Drive with the windows nearly closed.

For riders— while the volcano is erupting, even if you are far away from it — switch to a full-face helmet even if your destination is nearby. If you don’t have a full-face helmet, wear goggles or eye protection and a facemask, filter, or N95 mask underneath.

4. Have your vehicle serviced

Even if you’re in an area with light ash fall, if will easily get everywhere. As a precaution, have your car or motorcycle serviced when the ash fall subsides.

Your engine will be very vulnerable to ash because it has to suck in air to produce power. Your air filter will be the first thing that needs either replacing or cleaning; to do this, use compressed air on the clean side of the filter to blow out the debris from the dirty side. If you can, it’s even better to replace the filter.

Your engine oil is also worth checking because ash particles can find a way in there as well. If you do spot some ash particles in the oil dipstick, filter or oil level window, you will have to change your oil because the abrasive ash can damage engine internals or transmission components if left unchecked.

Many of these tips actually come from riders who go off-roading in desert conditions because the issues are largely the same; sand, like ash, is abrasive, hard to see through, gets everywhere, and is tricky to get out.

The best thing to do is to avoid riding to protect yourself and your motorcycle. Park it indoors or cover it with a tarpaulin or bike cover. But if you have no other recourse, these tips should come in very handy.

By Inigo S. Roces

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