Thursday, January 7, 2010

W for Winter Driving in Minnesota (alternatively, H for Hell)

One hour and twenty five minutes. That’s how long it took me to get to work today. As a frame of reference, it usually takes me half an hour (maybe forty minutes on a bad day). I knew when I took the dogs out this morning that traffic was going to be bad. We apparently got a few inches of snow last night, and it was windy and cold this morning. It was so windy, in fact, that I couldn’t tell if it was still snowing or if the new snow that was on the ground was just blowing around. Welcome to Minnesota, my friends…

I’ve lived in this godforsaken state my whole life (that’s 31 years, in case you’re counting), and I sometimes wonder why, now that I’m an adult, I don’t just leave. Then I remember that all of my family and friends are here, that I’d miss them all terribly if I moved to another state, and that I do enjoy the other three seasons Minnesota offers. In the midst of nasty winters such as this one though, I wonder once again if those other three seasons are worth enduring the winter weather. Typically winter goes from about November (sometimes the end of October) through about March (sometimes into April); it is our state’s longest season. It’s also the worst one.

There are three things I hate most about winter in Minnesota: (1) large amounts of snow, (2) the sub-zero temperatures, and (3) ice, which is typically a result of number one melting and number two occurring soon after that melt. The snow usually becomes bearable after a while, because you just learn to cope with it. The sub-zero temps ensure that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, because that would necessitate temperatures getting warm enough for the snow to actually melt, which doesn’t often happen in the middle of winter. Instead, it will get just warm enough for some of the snow to melt, and then sub-zero temps will blast in ensuring that the snow is here to stay, and as a special treat, it’s brought along its friend ice. Because, ya know, that just adds to the fun. It’s not so bad once sidewalks, driveways, and roads are cleared off. Unfortunately, once ice is here, it’s usually here to stay for a while.

The first snowfall of winter is usually the worst. That’s when it becomes abundantly clear that many of my fellow Minnesotans apparently have traumatic brain injuries that cause them to completely forget, in the span of about seven months, how to drive in the snow. When the first snow of winter hits the ground, I know that there is no way I am getting to work on time. It’s not hard, in my opinion anyway, to drive in the snow. Really, it’s not. All that’s required is good tires, good brakes, and a willingness to drive slower than usual. Common sense is also quite necessary, but unfortunately a large part of the population seems to have misplaced theirs.

The key to winter driving is: one must drive slower than normal and leave an appropriate amount of distance between themselves and the car ahead of them in order to have the appropriate amount of time and space to stop on roads that might be a little more slippery than normal. This is where the amnesia of those traumatic brain injury survivors comes in.

Many people, especially those who drive SUVs and large trucks, seem to think that they are invincible in the snow. Common sense goes out the window as these people weave from lane to lane and drive well above what would be considered a safe speed limit for the weather. This morning, that speed limit seemed to be about 15 mph. On a highway in which traffic usually moves at 70 mph, traffic was only moving at about 15 mph (when it was moving at all), because the roads were bad. These maniacs decide that the rest of us are driving slower simply to piss them off, so they disregard the safe speed limit; choosing instead to weave in and out of traffic and to speed along the shoulders on the highway. (Interestingly enough, you see more SUVs and large vehicles stuck in ditches than small cars. Coincidence? I think not.)

These maniacs make it hard to keep appropriate distance between yourself and others, because they exploit the tiniest gap between cars—squeezing their way in no matter what all in the name of gaining some distance. This behavior scares those already timid drivers who weep at the first signs of snow, believing that driving over 5 miles per hour (no matter what the road conditions) means certain death. Between the maniacs and the overly cautious, there are those of us who understand that we will get to where we’re going eventually, and we can get there safely as long as we drive sensibly and respect the road and weather conditions. Unfortunately, there seem to be more maniacs and overly cautious drivers on the road than we moderates, and this causes problems for all of us.

On days like today, ice has been on the ground and roads for a while, which means the new snow covers slick spots and makes them more slippery. Also, because traffic is just creeping along, black ice is created in spots where cars have been stopped in place for a bit (especially on entrance/exit ramps and bridges). Black ice happens when the exhaust from cars turns into condensation, which freezes immediately upon hitting the ground because it is that cold outside. Without snow, these spots can be seen by the driver, allowing her to know that she should drive slowly and brake carefully; however, when snow covers the slick spots, it becomes a guessing game. One must drive more cautiously in this situation. My car has anti-lock brakes, so when I hit ones of these spots, my car makes all sorts of nasty grinding noise at it tries to stop itself. This used to make me freak the heck out, but it doesn’t anymore; I know my car is stopping and I’ve left myself plenty of room to stop, so I have no worries about hitting the car in front of me.

It is scary to be on the roads in these conditions, because no matter how good and carefully I drive, I am still at risk of a trip into the ditch (at best) and an accident (at worst). Why? Because my life and safety depends on the drivers around me to drive as safely and cautiously as they should, and society’s unfortunately prevalent entitlement mentality (and seeming lack of common sense) creates drivers who don’t seem to think about or care how their stupidity can affect others. They act as though they are the only ones on the road, the only ones running late, and/or the only ones with somewhere important to get to. Because of this, they put the rest of us in danger.

For example, let’s say Mr. Maniac breezes past Mr. Overly Cautious right as Mr. Overly Cautious hits an icy patch. Already freaked out and flustered by Mr. Maniac, Mr. Overly Cautious overreacts and jams on his brakes. The actions of these bad drivers could have several outcomes:

1. Mr. Overly Cautious slides on the ice and ends up in the ditch. This sucks for him, but at least the rest of us are still safe.

2. Mr. Overly Cautious overcorrects as he starts to slide on the ice and hits the car in front of or beside him, resulting in an accident. Because traffic has barely been moving, this is a low impact collision, so little injury results. However, traffic is now further mucked up as the two cars involved in the accident try to move to the side of the road to wait on the shoulder for the police to arrive. Anytime there’s a car sitting on the shoulder of the road (especially on the highway), a “gawker delay” is also created; people simply must look at the misfortune of others. As they’re doing so, they drive slowly, which of course means traffic slows down even more.

3. Mr. Overly Cautious hits the car in front of him, pushing that car into the car in front of or beside it, resulting in a multi car accident. Again, hopefully a low impact accident, but now traffic is severely affected as multiple cars try to move to the side of the road to await the police, and once again, a gawker delay is created.

4. Mr. Maniac hits a patch of ice, slamming into a car or two. Because he’s been driving faster than he should, this results in a car accident with possible injuries. Not cool, Mr. Maniac. Not cool at all. You sir, are a douche bag of the highest degree.

Needless to say, driving in these conditions is stressful and exhausting. I try to keep track of the car ahead of me and the space between us as well as the car behind me and the space they’re keeping between us. I usually drive in the far left or right lane so that I can pull off to the side of the road (and/or into the ditch) if the car behind me isn’t paying attention/is going too fast/is tailgating and can’t stop on time so that I can at least attempt to avoid being hit. It would suck to end up in the ditch, but I have roadside assistance (thanks to my mother-in-law who renews it every year as a Christmas gift to us). I’d rather sit in the ditch and wait for a tow truck than be injured (or worse: killed) by some moron who isn’t paying attention/is going too fast/is tailgating and can’t stop on time.

By the time I got to work today, I was crabby (*cough* understatement *cough*) and tired. All I wanted to do was take a nap. Instead, I grabbed a cup of coffee (thanking the gods that there is a coffee shop in the lobby of my building) and headed up to my desk to begin the workday. After working a long day, I get to repeat the fun driving experience on the way home. It should be lovely, especially since it’s been snowing (or blowing around at least) nearly all day. I just hope that I get home safely and at a decent hour.

As I sit in the car for the long drive home, I will fantasize about becoming independently wealthy, which would allow me to live out of state during these awful months in which Minnesota is transformed into a common senseless, entitlement whore filled frozen tundra. (I'll turn up the heat in the car extra high in order to really be able to feel my fantasty come to life; as I would, of course, live in a warmer environment during Minnesota's winter months.) I would only occasionally visit my “home” state during the winter months; arriving for temporary visits as dictated by holidays and various family functions. My wealth would, of course, allow me to hire a car service, in which case I could at least take a nap in the back seat as my driver navigates the ridiculous traffic. Hey, a girl can dream, can’t she?!?!

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  1. I definitely do not miss the winters in the north! All those crazy drivers!

    Can't we just skip ahead to April?

  2. And this is why I now LOVE taking the bus. Get me a book, some heat and a competent driver and I'm good to go. I highly recommend it!

    I'm glad you survived! :)

  3. I'm from Maine and so get you on this! I'm stuck up here because of family and friends who I'd miss, but every year in the month of January, when we're right smack in the middle of the worst of it, I wonder if they're all worth it. :P
    Stopping by from SITS!

  4. Thanks for coming to visit my blog and for your advice! It is very wise- I appreciate it. Oh man, I can commiserate a bit w/ you post! I think many of the same things when I deal w/ winter and traffic - why do I still live here??!!!??? SO, I totally get it! Thanks for verbalizing my misery too! :)

  5. hi, stopping over from SITS! sounds like minnesota and upstate new york are one and the same. once the snow hits, everyone's all "oh my god! this is my first time behind the wheel! what do i doooo??!" good luck driving with those loonies!

  6. Hi! Thanks for your comment on my blog! :) .... I love living in Wisconsin, I love snow and I love cold weather! I just started driving in the snow and that I do not like at all... so I agree there! ;)

    it can get scary!


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