It snowed yesterday.
An unexpected call forced me out of pajama pants and into my car. Immediately, as I stepped out the door and saw the white roads, my heart sunk.
Not three blocks from my house, the entire eastbound lane of Debarr was closed off. A car had veered off the road and inconveniently nested in someone’s living room. Cars careened into intersections, unable to react to red lights; trucks slid onto sidewalks to avoid other vehicles. Impromptu parking garages of abandoned vehicles pile up on road sides and in the middle of the New Seward Highway. This was such a wide spread event, bloggers at The Car Starter posted articles and advice for the people during this time.
Every winter. First snow. The annual Ohmuhgawd-Snow!-Car-Fail Day debilitates Anchorage.
It’s Called Snow.
Snow. Noun. “Atmospheric water vapor frozen into ice crystals and falling in light white flakes or lying on the ground as a white layer.”
Some basic elements of this definition should jump out. Water. Frozen. Ice. Ground. Layer.
General fact about snow when applied to street: it can range from slippery to treacherous. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. It very clearly descends from the sky, affixes itself to the street, changing the entire physical makeup of the pavement, and screams: “Hey! Something’s different!”
How does this manage to sail over so many heads every year?
If, for whatever reason, you have trouble with this, try employing a mental checklist:
1. Starting every October, when you walk out the door, pause before getting into your car.
2. Do things look the same as they did yesterday or is something different?
3. If something looks different, ask yourself: “Did it snow?”
4. If your answer is “Why, yes, that sure looks like snow,” take a moment to adjust yourself to the new road conditions. Start off driving slower than you normally would; braking more gently, much earlier than normal; noticing how the vehicle reacts to turns, acceleration, and braking.
This isn’t very hard. Do it.
Be Aware Of Your Place In The World.
Bad drivers tend to see themselves at the center of the universe. They’re furious with the car in front of them, which they believe to be intentionally ruining their world by driving too slow, and are uniquely oblivious to everything going on next to, and behind, them. That’s universally unhelpful on any day; but can be catastrophic many times over on Ohmuhgawd-Snow!-Car-Fail Day.
When I learned to drive, the instructor always reminded us: “It’s not the car that you see that will hit you; it’s the one you didn’t notice. Always look for that car.”
Expand your horizons. Consider other people and cars around you, and how snowy road conditions could impact their reaction times. Did that stoplight up ahead just turn red? Leave more space than usual in between you and the car ahead of you, because there is no guarantee that the guy overcompensating in the Hummer behind you is paying attention. You’ll need an escape route if he fails to stop.
Use your blinker. More and earlier. In the summer, a “one blink and turn” technique generally constitutes a moderate annoyance. Add snow, and the result is often a much more expensive head ache. You not only need to increase the time you allow yourself to make turns and stops, but also the person behind you, who is presumably unaware of your flight pattern.
Running Behind Is Better Than Crashing Ahead.
Alaskans often run late. In the summer, no one seems to mind all that much. Because sun. But no one likes to be late, and folks often try to make up for lost time on the road. They skip the part where they notice how this could represent a hazard in the winter (not that it’s carefree in summer months).
If you try to cut corners — bob and weave through traffic to make up time — on Ohmuhgawd-Snow!-Car-Fail Day, you are a horrible person. You are prioritizing your arrival time at work over the lives of everyone you share the road with. Seriously, think about that for a moment. What is wrong with you?
Maybe you really are that important. You’re still an unbelievable asshole.
You’re going to be late. Accept it. That’s a much better deal that jettisoning into an intersection; risking great injury to yourself and others just to feel thirty seconds of accomplishment on your way in the door.
Tell your boss that road conditions slowed you down. If they’ve spent a winter here, they’ll get it. If they haven’t, they’ll learn. And no one dies. I feel like that’s the more important part.
Put. The. Cell. Phone. Down.
As I inched up Debarr yesterday (grandma-style), passing the sign welcoming me to Fairview, a woman in a Subaru ripped past me, just in time for the stoplight at Medfra to turn red. Her tires stopped spinning, but her car did not. As the two cars in front of her parted like the Red Sea, thankfully allowing her safe flailage through an empty intersection, I could see her cell phone clamped to her ear.
I caught up to her a street later, at the stoplight on Karluk. She was texting. Probably about being hurled through an intersection.
I remember the backlash when the legislature banned texting while driving. Cries of the nanny state going to far. Conservative writer Alex Gimarc wrote at the Alaska Standard that the measure was an “erosion of liberty.”
We’ve banned texting. We should continue to restrict any handheld devices while behind the wheel. It’s not an erosion of liberty, it’s showing respect for yourself and your common man. And it would cut down a lot of shortsighted behavior when the rubber hits the snow-covered road.
So put the phone down.
In Conclusion, I Will Now Randomly Piss All Over on Jon Stewart’s Optimism.
Remember Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity?”
Stewart gave a speech that, I hope, history eventually embraces as the important commentary it was. The bit of the speech that garnered the most attention was a blunt observation about daily commuters that populate the clogged highways all over the country. It’s stuck with me ever since. Unfortunately, not for the reasons he intended.
Most Americans… live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it; impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make…. [T]hese millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, 30-foot wide tunnel carved underneath the mighty river, carved by people, who I’m sure, by the way, had their differences. And they do it, concession by concession. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go…. Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together.
To Stewart, holding onto that casual thing that drivers do “every damn day” gave him hope.
But, as Ohmuhgawd-Snow!-Car-Fail Day shows us — every damn year — we may be the cooperative nation described by Stewart, interweaving and compromising; orchestrating a beautiful societal harmony. We may be that nation. Sometimes.
But we also tailgate each other in snowstorms.
Stop it. And be safe out there.