Snowy out? Then step on it!
December 14, 2007
People, I beg of you, please drive faster on icy roads.
As it is, every flurry that blows through town brings traffic to a crawl. Our streets are in gridlock when the skies even threaten to turn gray. Drivers freeze up whenever the roads do. Commuters are wasting untold hours, motionless behind their frosted windshields. This should not be happening in a town where snow is expected and welcome.
All of this snow-induced standstill is borne of fear. Yes, snowy roads are slippery, but not nearly as much as most drivers believe. Don’t let a couple of cars in the ditch between Aspen and Basalt have exaggerated influence in your risk evaluation process. There is no point in dwelling on visions of vehicles careening out of control on black ice, when you yourself are driving on it. It is far more productive to focus on the thousands of cars that are not wedged into the snow banks. The power of positive thinking cannot be overstated when traveling in a blizzard.
Confidence in the driver’s seat is paramount to overcoming old, overly cautious habits on slick blacktop. No, you can’t simply pop the clutch and get up to 75 mph in the blink of eye when the highways are slippery. Be patient. It takes a little more time to build up your speed. On extremely icy roads it might take up to a half a minute to attain a cruising speed you don’t have to be embarrassed about.
An added benefit of driving fast on snow-packed highways is that your self-assurance is contagious. If other drivers see you barreling down the road, sending up clouds of billowing powder without concern, they will follow, not wanting to appear dumber or less adept in the cockpit than you.
I would even say that those of you not afraid to rev it up on the ice have a duty to actively “encourage” others to pick up the pace during storms. There’s nothing wrong with laying on the horn if someone is poking along ahead of you. Sure, they might initially slam on the brakes as you startle them, but that will cause only temporary delays. Adrenaline never slows anybody down for long.
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Try this experiment in the next whiteout: Pull up behind a creeping set of taillights on an open stretch of glazed road. When you are within 10 feet, flash your high beams a couple of times, get into the passing lane, and let ‘er rip! Just as soon as you have clearance between their front and your rear bumper, pull in front of them quickly in order to plaster their windshield with a thick coat of magnesium chloride-laden filthy slush. Stomp on the gas to enhance the white-out conditions by leaving behind your own plume of spindrift. The humiliated driver will certainly get the message and pick up the pace.
The other thing you can’t worry so much about on slick roads is potential damage to your own vehicle. The thing we fail to realize during winter storms is that snow banks are like safety nets lining the byways. They protect our cars from damage if we happen to go sliding out of control and end up off course. Many years ago, I learned the hard way that I had been wasting valuable time during trips through storms worrying about getting a few bends in my fenders:
I was driving my brand new turbo-charged Pontiac Sunbird over Vail Pass during the mother-of-all blizzards. Crawling down the west side, I ended up behind an 18-wheeler that was cautiously grinding it out and burying me in its wake. I could have pulled back and followed it off the mountain, but knew that would cost me time. Recalling a valuable high school half-time pep talk about cajones, I went for it. Clearing the cab of the truck, I saw nothing but glistening freeway in front of me.
Well, before I could change the radio station, I spun a 180 and was looking uphill into the headlights of that big rig barreling down at me. I cranked the steering wheel and initiated another hard skid and ended up broadside against the median. And do you know what happened? Nothing! After a half hour of digging out, I realized that there wasn’t even a scratch in my bright, red car. Fresh snow is excellent padding!
That was a great lesson! Since then, I’ve driven through the cold months as if I live in Florida. I ended up burning up the turbo charger in that car before incurring any noticeable chassis damage. I now save a bundle by foregoing snow tires, which I figured out are an unnecessary crutch needed by less skilled drivers to get up to cruising speed. (But, if you need then, get them.)
Alas, I would be terribly remiss if I didn’t remind those of you with four-wheel drive vehicles that you are no better off on ice than those who are in two-wheel drive vehicles equipped with adequate all-weather tires. Any local will confirm this. You might be quicker off the line, but the smaller cars will make it up in the turns. So, if you are thinking about racing during the next storm, evaluate the competition carefully to ensure the best chance for victory.
Yes, there is incontrovertible evidence that both the risk and severity of automobile accidents increase with speed. But, this is true on dry roads as well as icy. So why drive any differently on snow? What we should be concentrating on is the cost of driving slowly. If you are wasting a half hour a day creeping along like an old man every time it snows, it can add up to additional days behind the wheel throughout the year. Put a price tag on that. Remember, it is not only your own life you are wasting, too. Think of all the poor bastards behind you!
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