Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Snowbound with Patience

The first time I ever drove a car was in the snow. It was my parents' philosophy that good snow drivers are created by early exposure to snowy conditions, so one snowy Sunday morning, my dad took me to the unplowed parking lot at the mall and let me get my snow legs. (Wheels?) I nearly crashed into a stop sign, but that was the only time I ever lost control of a car in the snow. And since I grew up in Buffalo, where the video posted above illustrates the sort of conditions we dealt with, I feel entitled to call myself an experienced snow driver. And we never had four wheel drive, or anti-lock breaks. We didn't even have front wheel drive.

This year we're having a pretty snowy winter in Virginia. It's starting to feel like The Long Winter from the Little House series. And we're supposed to get possibly three-to-four more feet of snow this weekend, plus another storm on Tuesday. I see plenty of people here who drive capably in the snow, but I see plenty of others who clearly should not be on the road. I though I'd post a few pointers about snow driving.
  • Speed: Some people make the mistake of driving as slowly as possible, thinking that is safer. Actually, crawling along at 2mph will just get you stuck, along with everyone else who is behind you. You don't want to drive so fast that you're reckless, either, but you need some momentum or you'll never get up the hills. A good rule of thumb is to go about 5-10 mph less than the speed limit, but speed up if you're going up a hill.
  • DON'T STOP when you're going up a hill.
  • Your brakes can be your worst enemy. Use them sparingly. Obviously, you do need to stop sometimes. The key is to anticipate when you will need to stop and take your foot off the gas and coast so the loss of momentum will reduce your need for the brakes. And when you do press the brake pedal, do it gently.
  • Leave extra space--a lot of extra space-- between yourself and the car in front of you. This will allow you to defend yourself if that person loses control of his car. It allows you to create extra momentum for yourself if the driver in front of you is the crawl-up-the-hill type, and prevents you from having to make sudden stops.
  • You don't want to make any sudden motions. Never slam on the brakes. If you're approaching a curve or need to turn, coast to it, don't brake for it. Then accelerate when you're about halfway into the turn.
  • Pay attention. Especially pay attention to traffic lights. Don't approach a stale green light going full speed, or you will end up having to chose between running a red light or stopping suddenly and losing control of your car.
  • Pack a shovel in your car.
  • Don't be one of those assholes who think that because they have four wheel drive, they can drive recklessly.


  1. Having lived my entire life in the South, I assume that I am not a good snow driver and therefore just stay at home until the roads are clear.

    That slideshow is incredible.

  2. I wish I had read this before I drove in the snow the first time. That was during my brief stint in New Jersey. I slammed on the brakes and did a 180 in the middle of a four lane road. Luckily for me, no one else was on the road at that exact moment. If you know anything about New Jersey roads, that was a minor miracle.

  3. So funny! I just re-read The Long Winter a couple weeks ago. I've been practicing my hay knots! I wish I had more experience driving in the snow but can totally get you through the tide's on the beach. Snow driving for us was chains on our way to Tahoe for a ski trip. Not the same.

  4. That is a crazy video--I never knew about that!
    I agree--slow down, but don't crawl, be smart. I have found front wheel drive to be better than 4 wheel drive in snow, actually. And a shovel is your friend!

  5. Grew up in Florida. Then moved to New England in my twenties. I SO wish I had known these things before I had to drive in the snow. I still occasionally have nightmares about fishtailing along at 10mph on the interstate, in 6 inches of slush. I did make it home, though-- I'm pretty sure it was because the road was four lanes wide, and there was no other traffic, except the ghostly white mounds of stalled-out cars from earlier in the day, and a lone eighteen-wheeler, drifting along with the cab at a thirty-degree angle to the trailer, and none of the wheels turning...

  6. After our record snowfall in Oregon last year, I have had enough snow to last me, well, forever.

  7. My dad took me out to get my snow bearings at the Wmsvl. North HS parking lot when we were baking Christmas cookies as a family and the kitchen was getting overcrowded. My mom was not pleased, but my snow driving is still a strong skill. Funny though, I hate doing it now with my kids in the car because I am scared of all the incompetent or reckless drivers.
    I loved the '77 blizzard! That was a fun storm!

  8. Sarah, the blizzard of '77 was the best two weeks of my life! I was stranded at Aunt Mimi's house and Katie and I had as much fun as is possible for two eight-year old girls, including, but not limited to climbing to the tops of trees and jumping out of them into the drifts.