TRENDING NEWS: Tuesday, Feb 3rd 2015
How to Drive in the Snow, in a Regular Car, Without Freaking Out
First, a tale.
Several years ago, a big snowstorm hit the D.C. metro area (where I live) late into a weekday afternoon. It was one of those deals where the National Weather Service wasn't able to nail down a firm forecast—maybe it'll snow! maybe it'll rain!—until the middle of the day, so the federal government hadn't shut down, so many tens of thousands of commuters were pouring onto the roads just as the snow began accumulating.
Now, these roads are overcrowded with drivers, badly, even on the driest of days, and back then I had a commute—train half the distance, driving the rest—that took me two hours each way under ideal circumstances. It was a disaster. Four hours after I got off the train, I'd covered just over half the remaining distance, as the crow flies—and only gotten that far via an endless series of improvised detours down snowy residential streets that might not actually have shortened the trip at all, so much as they'd just allowed me to keep moving, for a while, before I'd eventually have to give up and get in some motionless line of snowed-in vehicles and wait for them to start moving.
I was driving my shitty, ancient, half-broken-down Dodge Neon along a long stretch of straight road that eventually, farther along, bent up and to the left, and I came up behind a line of maybe a dozen stopped cars. By now, full-on nighttime was upon us, and the snow was maybe three inches deep on the road; up ahead, where the road inclined and turned left, a small Corolla-ish car had lost traction on the rise. Every few seconds, you could see its taillights illuminate a cloud of kicked-up snow and steam and shit, and then the back end would start sliding to one side or the other, and the driver would stamp on the brakes in fear of sliding down the hill and crashing into somebody.
And we were all just ... sitting there. A dozen or so grown-ass driving-age adults, sitting there, in our cars, on our various ways home in a heavy snowstorm, just fucking sitting there and watching this sad theater play out on the hill in front of us. As though it was nothing to just while away a dark and snowy night in our cars, on a random road, and not at home with our families or pets or TVs. As though if we waited long enough, the magical Traction Elves would emerge from the trees on either side of the road and zap this poor driver's friggin' Escort or whatever the rest of the way up the hill.
So I did what seemed to me the only sane thing to do: I got the fuck out of my car, I trudged the fuck past all these stationary weenies in my cheap-shit Office Drone shoes, I pushed this poor sucker's car so it wouldn't slide backward while he gunned the engine, and then, when his tires finally grabbed hold of the ground under them and his busted little Geo Metro or whatever the fuck crawled up the hill and out of sight, I trudged the fuck back to my shitty, ancient, half-broken-down Dodge Neon, and got the fuck back in. Not out of some altruistic impulse to help my fellow man, but because I wanted to go home, and as long as I sat there in my car like a bag of shit and watched this guy spin his wheels helplessly on that hill, I was never going to get there.
And the weirdest thing happened, on my way back to my car: Half the people I'd shambled past on my way to push that guy's car rolled down their windows to thank me for doing it. It actually made me more irritated at them. What am I, Hercules? All I wanted was to get the fuck home. Anyone else who'd wanted to get the fuck home could've done the same thing. It didn't take any particular reservoir of strength, or technological know-how, or moral uprightness; I just walked from my car to the other guy's car, put my cold-ass un-gloved hands on the back bumper of his car, and pushed. For 30 whole seconds. So that I would not have to spend the night in my goddamn car.
I passed all those indolent fuckers on the way up the hill. I hope they all slid their cars into a fucking lake.
Which brings me to the first thing you need to know in order to drive the hell home in the snow:You are not actually required to lose your goddamn mind just because snow is falling. It is not the apocalypse. Neither physics nor society have been cancelled by it. It is not sulfuric ash. There are no abominable snowpeople stalking through it. It will not dissolve your body if it touches you. It is frozen water. You can drive in it, you can walk in it, you can stand in it long enough to help a fellow motorist get the fuck out of your way, you can ball it up and throw it at people who treat it like it's the end of the goddamn world. It is snow.
Accordingly, driving a car home in the snow is still driving a car. This probably seems like snarky, unhelpful advice, but actually it's not! Many drivers seem genuinely to believe that, when the road has snow on it, using an automobile to get from one place to another becomes a fundamentally different activity, with weird obscure properties that you don't know, and so you creep along at two miles-per-hour with the brake pedal halfway depressed the entire time and, like, your goddamn hazard lights on, gripping the wheel in white-knuckled terror, as though at any minute, for no reason whatsoever, your car might decide to hang a 90-degree left turn and plunge into a ravine.
It's not going to do that! It's just a car. You know how to drive one of those. You just have to do it a little bit more carefully now. The best practices for snow-driving are, basically, the same as the best practices for dry-driving, only with the conservatism turned up 25 percent. Follow them, and they will lead you home—which is where you, and apparently none of the other bozos on the road, intend to get, sometime before the stars burn out.
(Note that these are not tips for how to prepare your car for the snow. There will be no advice on, like, how to put snow tires or chains on your car, or what to look for in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. These are tips for people who have somewhere to go, like home, and have only the car they've already got, with the tires it has already got on it, to get them there. This is also the reason why "don't drive in the snow unless you absolutely must" will not be one of the tips, even though, in general, that's good advice.)
Accelerate more gradually than usual. So, like, don't stomp on the gas pedal when the light turns green. Mosey up to speed casually. This will help prevent your tires from slipping and spinning fruitlessly on the compressed snow.
Drive at a reasonable speed. Duh, right? Of course. You're always supposed to do that. But, like, during a snowstorm, actually do it. My general rule of thumb is, unless heavy traffic is dictating how fast I can go, I subtract 10 from the speed limit when there's snow on the road. (And then I usually go a bit faster than that. But I don't let myself get pissed off at anyone who's going 10 mph below the speed limit.) (Obviously this rule does not work if the speed limit is 10 mph.)
Give the other cars enough space. You ignore this rule on sunny days, of course, because you're late and harried and overburdened and you treat the road like it's a Mad Max movie, and so if you must ride the bumper of the grandmother in front of you, by God, one way or another, you will get to work on time. But, it's still a rule, and an intuitive one, and when there's snow on the road, observe it. Hang back. Give the car in front of you a full eight seconds of space—meaning that it should pass signs and landmarks and stuff a full eight seconds before you do.
Don't squirrel from lane to lane like you are goddamn Alberto Tomba on the slalom. Don't do any more turning than you absolutely have to; if you're going so much faster than the other cars on the road that you have to be ducking and dodging between lanes to get around them, you are going too fast, and are going to wind up wearing a tree like a hat.
Decelerate more gradually than usual, too. Don't wait until the last second to brake for stops and turns, or you might slide right through one of them and pitch your car into a guardrail/the back of the car in front of you/a curb/a gorge. Anticipate the stops and turns before you get to them, and slow down gradually. This way, if you press the brake pedal and nothing happens because your car is sliding, you've got plenty of time and space to react and avoid crashing into the yeti in the middle of the road. Also, it helps you with the next tip:
Avoid stopping where possible. If you start gradually slowing down way the hell before you get to a stoplight, there's a decent chance it'll turn green before you get there, and then you can just keep going without ever having had to stop. Same with a line of stopped cars in front of you: Start braking, like, a few football fields back, and they might be on their way before there's ever any chance you might have plowed into the back of them and ruined everyone's day.
Don't brake and make a sharp turn at the same time if you can avoid it. Many of the wrecked and/or spun-out cars you drive past during snowstorms are people who tried to brake and, like, turn right onto another road, at the same time, on a slick, snowy surface; they had too much momentum carrying them forward and not enough traction, and they just slid right the hell out of the turn and into whatever's on the far side of the road. See the turn coming and slow way the hell down in preparation for it, so that by the time you get there, you can take your foot off the brake, turn the wheel, and coast slowly around the bend.
Be smart on hills. Hills suck when the road is slippery. Give the cars in front of you a lot of space, so that there's no chance you'll have to stop on your way up the hill; build up a little speed before you get to the incline, and then just cruise up the hill without accelerating. If you try to accelerate on the way up the hill, you're increasing the chances of your tires spinning and slipping, and then everything goes to hell. Just cruise on up to the top; you'll slow down on the way, which is good, because this'll help you stay under control on the way back down.
If you start to slide or spin, don't panic. Yeah, yeah, easier said than done, sure. But, stay calm. Don't start cranking the steering wheel all over the place and stamping your feet on the gas and brake pedals like a lunatic. Say, aloud, to yourself, calmly and slowly, "Ohhhh boy. Ohhhhhhhhh boy. Come on, [your car's name*]." This will help you calm down. Since you were following the other tips—going slow, giving space to other cars, decelerating long before turns and stops—you should have space and time to work with, and the situation's almost certainly not as dire as it seems.
*I called my old, shitty Neon "The Neener." As in, "Come on, The Neener." Hearing my voice say something as dumb as that helped me keep my shit together in several tricky driving situations. Not that that's why I named it The Neener, mind you; The Neener is just a good name for a car.
Moving smoothly and deliberately the entire time, look in the direction you want to go, rather than at what you're sliding toward, and turn the steering wheel in that direction, exactly the way you would if you were on a dry road and trying to turn in that direction. So, if you're on a straight road, and the car's, say, spinning clockwise, look and steer back toward the direction you were going; if you're trying to go around a turn, but the car's not turning, look and steer in the direction of the turn. Take your foot off the brake—I know!—to give the tires a chance to grab some traction (if you're in a front-wheel-drive car, you can even tap the accelerator a couple times to help them along; it seems counterintuitive as hell and might take some practice, but it works!). You'll probably recover pretty quickly, since you were going slowly and probably weren't all that far out of control to begin with.
Then, resume driving, but more slowly. Pull into the next convenience-store parking lot you come across, to stop the car and shake uncontrollably for five minutes until the adrenaline wears off.
If you come across a car that has spun out or slid off the road or that can't get up an incline, get the fuck out of your car and help. We're living in a society, here.
Remember: Your mission is to get home before the snow melts. Adopt the attitude of a Serious-Minded Person with a Mission. A Michael Mann Protagonist. A Michael Mann Protagonist does not dally; or panic; or give up; or voluntarily sit still for 90 minutes, when less than a minute of walking and pushing could move an obstacle aside; or creep along at two miles-per-hour with the hazards on, kinda straddling the lane-lines for no reason and coming to a complete stop every 40 feet. On the other hand, a Michael Mann Protagonist also does not rush, or take needless risks that imperil the mission. No, a Michael Mann Protagonist is grim, and focused, and gimlet-eyed, and balances progress with caution, and Gets the Damn Job Done.
And so shall you Get the Damn Job Done. But also, remember to charge your mobile phone before you get in the car, so that you can call someone to come rescue you after you ignore all the above suggestions, get distracted rocking out to terrible Dad Music on the classic rock station, and pinwheel your car into a family of polar bears.