Weekend Diversion: Snowpocalypse Now?

Things slow down when it snows everywhere. They did when I lived in New York, Chicago, and Madison, WI, and for good reason. There are a few basic rules about driving in snow that everybody adheres to, including being knowledgeable about what your vehicle can and cannot handle. It's a pain, but it could be a lot worse. When people make mistakes, scenes like this are the worst you're likely to find.

For the past couple of winters, I've lived in Portland, OR. The climate is generally warmer, and so snow is rare. We get snow maybe once a year. As a result, I was completely unprepared for the drivers on the road here in Portland. There's a good reason I stay in and make snowmen when this happens. Want to see?

Never, never have I seen drivers consistently this bad in this type of weather. No salt + no plows + no experience = this mess. The video is just mind-boggling, as the same futile mistakes are made over and over before the fire department gets out there to stop people from making the same poor decisions.

Anyone have a snow story to share?

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Is that just snow or is it snow on a layer of ice?

I've lost control of my car only about three times due to ice/snow and it is horrible. There is sickening feeling of helplessness as the car leaves the comfort of Aristotelian physics and enters pure Newtonian physics. The worst damage that ever happened for me was knocking over a mail box. I was in the residential area only a few blocks from home, the roads had been plowed and salted but that night the temps had dropped down to between 5 and 10 degrees above zero (Fahrenheit) and the water/salt mixture had refrozen. I was creeping along at about 3 miles per hour and was doing pretty good but then the road curved to the left and my car kept going straight. I was moving so slowly that the collision with the mailbox was like watching one of those Time Warp slow motion films. Evidently, that mailbox had a history of getting hit - the homeowner, just handed me a 3x5 card with the information about where to pick up a replacement post - he used a wooden post in a shallow hole to keep the damage to the cars to a minimum.

No stories per se, but as a skilled winter driver who's considering a move to Portland, Thank You! This is good to know.

I smashed up my brand new car last winter coming down a hill that was much like this one, a little snow on top of ice. No traction whatsoever, abs did nothing. We plowed into the curb and then couldn't stop and the only controllable way to get the car down the hill was to drive in the gutter where all the snow had been pushed over into.

In Salt Lake, every year, like clockwork, the first snow of the season causes about 200 crashes. Everyone forgets how to drive in the snow until after the first storm and then it is more normal.

It was really strange here in Portland Tuesday. I'm a 10 minute bus ride from home and it took four hours thanks to all the incompetent drivers out there. And then there are the idiots who blamed everybody but themselves for the accident they just had, Portland freaks out in the snow and they aren't any better when it rains for the first time in a bit.

One has to remember, half of all drivers are below average, and our average isn't that great.

I remember being in New Haven as a graduate student, where none of the landlords (or homeowners, maybe) shoveled their sections of sidewalk, and definitely didn't put down salt. I bought golf cleats just to walk to and from the math department every day.

I live in the belt between lots of snow and no snow, so what we get are icestorms and snow that thaws and freezes. On the 1-lane road from my tiny town to the interstate there's a place where it dips to cross a creek and turns just as it crosses the bridge (which is the most frozen spot). Without fail, after every storm, there are 3 or 4 cars lying at odd angles in the ditch. And, without fail, all of them are 4WD SUVs. The people with front-wheel drive sedans are more sedate, and take the dip at a slow, steady 2-3 miles per hour, and do just fine. But the SUV'rs think their tanks are able to go anywhere, and haul through at 20 mph, and spin out.

It's 39 degrees Celsius in Perth now (102 degrees Fahrenheit) and my air conditioner is broken, so I would love to have your weather. We only get traffic slaloms after it rains after a long dry period (which is happening more frequently) when motorists forget that roads are slippery when wet and there has been a buildup of leaked oil at traffic lights.

By Wayne Robinson (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'm not sure what you think should have been done in the 2nd video. I've been in exactly that situation, in very snow-teady Ottawa, with snow tires on. Black ice under a layer of fresh snow, early in the season before there's salt or sand on the road: a recipe for certain disaster.

I was luckly enough to take the long slide down a cross street, and escaped by grinding a rim for 60 feet down a curb -- an option that wasn't available in the Portland video. Net loss: a tire and a rim. But at the bottom of the cross-street, which had a steeper hill, and cars parked on both sites, there were 16 cars by the time somebody managed to get to the top and wave people off before they made the turn.

By edrowland (not verified) on 02 Jan 2010 #permalink

Hahaha - reminds me of Australians and snow. I always fall over laughing when I hear an Australian say they know how to drive in snow. Then again, Phoenix was no fun either on the few occasions where snow stayed on the ground; I just stayed indoors then. I can't remember where I saw it (UP Mich or else New Zealand), but I saw a lunatic on a trailbike scooting through the snow. I hate driving in snow at the best of times.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

I've started fish-tailing plenty of times, but no serious accidents.

Did that video take place on a hill? Those vehicles seemed to slide for forever. I guess it must have been really icy, besides the snow.

The videos of Portland drivers is quite a few years old (ironically from a Seattle station, where drivers are even worse in snow). I remember that snow well, no ice, just about two inches of snow and a steepish hill (down by the MAC if you know Portland), if you saw the footage on TV the most common thing was that most drivers had their brakes locked up, a big no-no in all situations.

If you would like to a demonstration of how to drive in the snow at speed (approaching 100 miles/hour on a narrow one lane road) the Swedish World Rally is coming up next month, if there be snow.

Yes, I remember seeing that video last year during the big snow event in the Pacific Northwest. The past two years I've spent the Christmas holidays in the Seattle area, where my mother lives. No problem this year--we didn't get any significant snow in Seattle last week (Puget Sound moderates Seattle's weather significantly; Portland is at least 50 miles from salt water). But last year, road conditions were so bad that the company that has a monopoly on door-to-door shuttle service was not serving residential addresses (I wound up spending the night in a hotel just off I-5).

I live in New Hampshire, where in principle we know how to deal with snow. I don't bother checking the snow shutdown hotline on a forecast of less than six inches of snow with no freezing rain. But we have our idiots too. As I was driving home in the snow from the local airport (at 50 MPH, the posted speed limit on that stretch of road being 55), some idiot doing about 65 overtook me. On the right. As we were entering a merge zone (the right lane ends there). And about 1/4 mile later had to hit the brakes as he shifted to the left (falling in behind a bus) to get out of the exit only lane for the exit I was taking. Luckily for me, his brakes worked, but that driver is someone who shouldn't have a drivers license.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 03 Jan 2010 #permalink

Okay, I live in Malaysia. It's summer all year round. But I drive, but never in the snow. Just for some knowledge, anyone can teach me how to drive in snow? heh

@3: ABS is your enemy in those sorts of conditions - it prevents the wheels from getting a pile of snow in front of them. Brakes off, low gear, (don't drive an automatic!), and head for the deepest snow, is the best way out. Cars really ought to have a way of turning the ABS off for days like this. I note that most of the drivers in the video don't even try to steer their cars into the skid. Every snowy day, the first thing I do is to deliberately skid the car at a slow speed, to work out exactly how bad the conditions are, so I can set a safe pace.

Worst time I ever had in the snow...

Winter 1995. I had a rental car. My apartment building (in eastern PA) was at the top of a hill, with a bunch of not-very-tight switchback turns down to the main road. The middle section of road got very little light due to the surrounding landscape & architecture.

As I very slowly drove down the roadway, the first hairpin was partially iced - so my turn simply kept going as the wheels hit ice. I ended up sliding backwards down the middle section of road - with the drivers side gradually sliding closer to the trash dumpster at the last turn.
The dumpster took the driver's side mirror off completely, and left a long dented scrape along the wing. Enough to start the car rotating gently in the other direction just in time for the last turn - so that I hit the little retaining wall side on on the passenger side - crushing the mirror housing on that side and popping the mirror out!

I then got to drive almost 50 miles (in increasing snow) to my client in Allentown - with no mirrors...

Not fun. The idiots who kept trying to overtake (!) were even scarier since I couldn't see them coming!!


Most fun: Driving my son & friends around for 'playdates' in the neighborhood when the snow was around 3 feet deep - enough for nice sliding turns and plenty of control (in my 4wd truck)

People where I live drive kind of like that in August too, they are actually kind of safer when it's snowing. I still haven't figured out the physics of how everyone can sit at a light while it's green and then the line starts to move when the light turns red. Granted that a lot of the time a green left turn arrow and a red light are considered the same thing by the first 5-10 cars waiting at the light, but that still shouldn't happen.

PS to Sophos @ 13:
I taught my ex-boyfriend how to drive, both on snow and under normal conditions. He's back in Malaysia now and apparently, other than crazy drivers, the rainy season is kind of a pain?

Rainy season is nothing compared to the video above. It is just a little difficult to see the cars in front of you and also difficult to see the cars in the mirror. Never seen anything like the video above here. Hehehe.