Wednesday, January 9, 2008

You would think . . .

That people who live where it snows a good bit every winter would have some idea how to drive in snow. Alas, by and large 'tis not so.

I am but shortly back from a two-hour round trip to The Big Town (pop. c. 250,000) by way of a major Interstate. On both the local roads and the interstate, there was some snow, but scarcely piled drifts, yet on each leg of the trip we saw perhaps half a dozen cars that had spun off the road and were now mired.

I find in conversation that I am not alone in this sentiment: many we speak with ask "Why can't anyone here drive in snow?" This is, after all, Washington State. No one knows. But so it is.

Perhaps--no, what am I saying?--surely the worst snow-weather driving I ever saw was, mayhap excusably, in Texas. We were travelling cross-country by Interstate and somewhere in mid-Texas we ran into a freak heavy snowstorm. In no time at all, we were down to about 5 miles an hour, and I am not making this up in dim, after-the-fact memory because we were in a Volkswagen van and staying in first gear, which tops out at about 8 mph.

We just crawled, like almost everyone caught with us. It took perhaps 45 minutes to reach the next exit that came along, where we at once got off and went to the first motel that presented itself, in some small town whose name I have forgotten. We got the last available room in town, so many were fleeing the Interstate.

It was bad enough, in the late afternoon snowstorm, trying to even see where the road was, but even so, there were cars shooting past at, oh, maybe 45 mph. We wondered who could be so crazy; the next day, we found out.

By then, it was fairly sunny, but the road was still pretty snowy; drivable, but only slowly and with great care. On the radio before leaving the motel, we heard of an incident where the state police (or the Rangers?) had barricaded the on-ramps to the Interstate, so dangerous was it. So what do these Texans do? Stop their cars, get out, move the barricades and try to drive on. "Try" because all this is right in front of the police. When they tried to stop one jackass, he tried to run them down. Lawr'n'ordah, yah, you bet.

On the Interstate, it was as if Brueghel the Younger had painted snow scenes in hell. About every mile or so was another car off the road, most of them rolled over (the gap between the two road directions was a depression perhaps six to eight feet down with a fairly sharp slope, and most had rolled down that slope). One memory that sticks yet was a truck drawing a horse trailer, rolled onto its side, trailer and all, horse quite dead, feet sticking straight up.

All that was, of course, needless. Anyone with the least experience of bad-weather driving was proceeding, slowly but methodically and effectively, at modest speed. Every couple of minutes, though, there came and went some turkey who couldn't understand how or why some white powder should keep him from his accustomed 75 or 80 mph. We often met up with them a few more miles down the road from where they had passed us.

When I was in college, in a town in upstate new york where it really got cold and snowy in the winter (at -10 °F. we didn't bother to zip our coats for less than a block's walk), when the first significant snow of the season hit, the wise heads of those privileged to have a car would take the vehicle out in the evening onto the empty, snow-covered parking lot of the nearby high school and spend an hour or two re-accustoming themselves to the habits and instincts of steering on a slick surface, such that the wanted reactions became again automatic.

I don't to this day know why more people in snowy climes don't do the same thing--indeed, why there aren't municipally sponsored or operated zones where cars can be spun and skidded in safety as practice. But there's always some place around, empty and large enough so that one cannot run into anything if one stays toward the center, that can afford the needed practice.

It's kind of fun, though that's not the main idea. And it could save your life.

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