Winter Driving

The weather forecasters seemed to get yesterday’s storm just about right: one burst at lunchtime, a lull of a couple of hours, and then the heaviest stuff from 3 pm until 10 pm. Sure enough, I went out at 9 pm and used the snow blower to clear the driveway and this morning only a light dusting had been added. Still, it’s only 19 degrees, so the car windshield is frozen despite my best efforts to clean it last night. At least I remembered to flip up the wiper blades so they wouldn’t freeze in place. A few minutes with the defroster blasting and a lunge with the ice scraper should take care of the frosty residue.

Despite the relatively small amount of snow – we got 6 inches of light fluffy stuff – the trip home from work last night for many was stressful and long. My commute wasn’t bad: enter the Lowell Connector at Gorham Street, exit at Plain then up Parker and Pine to home. Those driving on the Connector huddled in a single path down its middle. Lane lines were invisible, of course. During my short stay on the road I didn’t see any heroes pull to the left and try zipping by the lane of those putt-putting at a speed safe for the conditions.

Exiting the highway wasn’t bad and the Plain Street traffic, while packed tightly, moved OK. After crossing Chelmsford Street and starting up the hill on Parker, things changed. I was in a line of traffic that was proceeding steadily – going up a snowy hill, you never want to come to a complete stop because you might not regain traction and resume forward motion. My problem was too much forward motion. Despite having a fairly heavy front wheel drive car with only 22K miles on its tires, as I neared the peak of the not-very-steep hill on Parker Street where the road curves to the left, my car kept going straight notwithstanding my turning of the steering wheel to the left.

Suddenly I became “that guy,” the one who doesn’t know how to drive in the snow. I turned my front wheels which are the drive wheels remember, to the left, the car didn’t respond but kept moving forward. Calling on my 37 years of winter driving experience, I pulled out all the tricks I could summon. Straighten the wheel and gently accelerate. Worked fine until I again turned the wheel slightly with no response. Finally, I just started thrusting at the accelerator, poking at it with my foot. Each surge would bump the front of the car a bit to the left before resuming its forward momentum toward the curb. Fortunately it is wide road at that point and I finally got my tires to fully bite before I reached the curb. This all happened in slow motion and I was fortunate to have a patient driver behind me who didn’t try to pull around me during this few second delay.

Why do I spend two paragraphs recounting a rather insignificant winter slip in the car? It’s a reminder that it doesn’t take much for things to quickly go awry when driving in snow. Because of that, speed is the enemy. If you and everyone else are driving slowly enough, even if you hit something (other than a person, certainly), not much damage should be done.

While I do have plenty of winter driving experience, my nearly four decades behind the wheel all blend together. Trying to sort it out, I recall that in the 1970s with big rear wheel drive cars, getting snow tires on seemed to be essential. If you really wanted good handling in winter weather, snow tires with metal studs were a wise investment until they were banned I think because they eroded pavement too quickly. In the 1980s I was shipped off to a very snowy part of Germany for three years. My creaky old Fiat 131S had trouble in temperate weather so winter posed a real challenge which is why I bought a set of tire chains. For those of you under the age of 50, tire chains are literally a long rectangular pattern of chains with hooks at one end. When the roads got slick, you pulled the two sets of chains out of your trunk, laid them on the ground immediately behind your two rear wheels, and slowly backed the wheels onto them. You then scrambled out to the wheels and draped the excess portion of the chain contraption over the tire, using the hooks to fasten the ends together at the top of the tire. This formed a chain net around each of your drive wheels. For the cost of soiling your clothes and numbing your fingers (there was no way to avoid either when mounting tire chains) you had on demand traction in the most challenging conditions.

Except on ice. As bad as it might be driving in snow, driving on ice is the worst. I don’t mean occasional black ice or slick spots. I mean the kind of ice that forms when the ground temperature is below freezing but the temperature aloft is warm enough to support rain. The precipitation falls to the ground as a liquid and changes to a solid – ice – immediately on contact. I vividly recall on one such day in Germany watching a 60 ton American Army tank sliding sideways down a road because of such conditions. If a fully tracked vehicle that weighs 60 tons will slide out of control on an icy road, the average oversized SUV of today will certainly do the same. Speaking from experience, all four wheel drive does for you on ice is give you four wheels spinning out of control rather than just two. We certainly are no strangers to that type of ice storm here in Massachusetts so as bad as yesterday’s commute was, it could have been worse.

But even in snowy conditions like yesterday’s, driving slowly is no guarantee you’ll make it home in a reasonable amount of time. My Twitter feed last night was filled with 140 character tales of 3 hour rides from Burlington to Chelmsford or Haverhill to Lowell. I’m not sure public transportation is much better. Since I always choose commuter rail over Route 93 when I have to go into Boston, I subscribe to the MBTA’s text message alert system for the Lowell line. Yesterday’s feed was of commuter rail disruptions was refreshing as fast as the counter on the gas pump when I fill up my car. “The 4:10 pm Lowell train delayed 40 minutes due to snow-related switching problems” is just one example.

So what are we to do about it? Move to Florida? No thanks. I guess we do what people have always done: suck it up and live with it until the seasons change. Also, make reasonable contingency plans like being sure that your ice scraper is in the car and not the garage when the weather turns cold. My register of deeds colleagues from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard have also taught me about “Island time.” Because the year round residents of those islands are so dependent on the ferry ride to the mainland for so much of life and because the operation of the ferry is so dependent on the weather, the islanders have learned to live with the uncertainly of winter plans. They take it in stride and move on. Emulating their attitude might make the rest of the winter easier to tolerate.