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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A man for all-seasonals

For God Sakes! If you cannot drive in bad weather then stay home. What is this insane need to be out on the road driving white knuckled down the highway when you have no concept of simple physics? Why is it that most people driving an SUV or truck think they can perform super human feats of driving in a blizzard? Why do we feel the need to raid the stores of bread, milk, and eggs, every time there is the mention of the white stuff? I call it a conspiracy between the weather man and the grocery store. Then there are the conditions of the road after the snow melts. Look, I live in Southwestern Pennsylvania which is known for being the pothole capital of the to Beirut. Why? One opinion could be that our State Department of Transportation, otherwise known as PENNDOT, has no concept of how to patch roads. Another could be that they do have an idea, but wish to have job security by doing a piss poor job. For the most part, the real reason is that we have a weird weather system going on here. Where most people have Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter cover an entire year, we manage to be completely random and cram Spring, Winter, Summer, Fall, REALLY HOT SUMMER, Spring, Winter, Spring, Winter, Summer, and Winter into 12 months time. Yet with road and weather conditions aside, I still find it easier to drive in bad weather than my wife. Then again, for someone who refuses to drive in bad weather, she gets awfully opinionated on how I drive in bad weather.

My wife, God lover her, is a weather junkie. She watches 22 minutes of the 11 o'clock news and an hour and 22 minutes of the 5 o'clock news. What's with the 22 minutes? That's when the weather is over. This is a woman who gets completely bent out of shape when we are promised a snow storm and don't get one. For me, I don't mind getting snow from about the middle of November through the middle of January. After that, I'm done. Give me blue skies and sunshine. I don't particularly care for our brand of weather here in the corner of PA. In a three day stretch during January we can have 70 degrees and sunshine, six inches of snow, and 40 degrees and monsoon like rain. It's nuts. It's no wonder you could lose a Buick in a pot hole around here. It's also the reason why I don't put snow tires on my car.

Every year I get the same speech from my wife.

"When are you putting snow tires on your car?"
"I'm not. I have all season radials." I tell her.
"What kind of a dumbass are you?" She asks.
"The kind who is $140 dollars richer." I finish.

This of course goes round and round and leads nowhere. Every year we argue and every year I end up with no accidents from bad weather. We don't have the weather that occurs in the upper elevations such as Johnstown or Altoona. We also don't have the weather that occurs in the more northern areas of Butler or Grove City. Nestled in the corner of the tri state area, we haven't seen a foot or more of snow since 2003. Prior to that, I believe it was 1993. What we do see is a lot of ice. People tend to think if they have snow tires, they are immune to sliding. Trust me, if it's that bad out there, stay home. It has nothing to do with thinking you are a bad driver...well, maybe, I don't know how you drive.... but it has everything to do with the other guy. They may have bald tires or no insurance or even a death wish. Why take a chance?

Experts will tell you to switch to winter tires for better grip on icy and snowy roads. I say, give a man snow tires and nothing else and I'll show you man calling triple AAA for a tow. For example, last February, I'm driving home from work and sitting at an intersection. It had snowed in the past day or so and the roads were still showing signs of packed snow and ice in some spots. I was second in line at the stop sign with another car behind me, keeping me from making any movements. At this point a Blazer comes down the road and attempts to turn onto our road. Normally, had I been in the first position, I would have made sure the guy slowed down and then made my turn. However, being second, I had no such position to do so. As the Blazer continued to make its turn he caught a patch of ice and began to slide. I noticed that he wasn't cutting it enough and within seconds, I heard the crunch of him hitting my car and the saw the sight of my headlight now dangling off of my bumper. Guess what? He had snow tires on his Blazer. I spent the next six weeks dueling back and forth with his insurance company and the body shop to get my car back to the way it looked previous to the accident.

It just goes to show you that, as a driver, it takes more than winter tires and four wheel drive to navigate the pot luck roads of this schizophrenic season we call winter. There is something about driving that needs to be more than simple mechanics. It's not about turning the key and pushing the pedal. You have to actually listen to your car and feel what is happening while you are driving. Also, a simple study of high school physics can't hurt. Most people will drive up a hill and then fly down the other side. In regular weather, that may be sufficient. In winter weather, I always find it best practice to start brake at the top of a hill and cautiously take the descent as you may need to stop in an instance. As you reach the bottom you can loosen your grip on the brake as you will need momentum to continue on your path. Also, most people don't think about driving up a hill until they are already stuck on it. If I am coming down a hill and heading into another I usually shift back into drive near the base of the hill and accelerate just enough to give me good momentum to make it up the next hill. Not enough to go crazy, just enough to carry you into a good position so that your continued acceleration is not marred by the weight of your car. If you have to start up a hill from a stopped position, don't panic. Use a lower gear. You want enough acceleration to pull your car up the hill but do not want the tires to spin faster than needed. This happened to me during our most recent snow storm. We had an inch or more on the road and I had to drive home during the worst of it. I took a detour around an accident and ended up on a hill that had been untouched and oddly enough, had a stop sign smack dab in the middle of it. A truck was following me and at the first sign of danger, pulled around me and kept going. As I struggled to get traction, I dropped my car into a lower gear and continually applied consistent pressure allowing the car to do the work for me. I made it over the hill and saved my pride in the process.

I'm sure there will be seasoned drivers that will denounce my methods and call me crazy. They will stand by their winter tires and 4 wheel drive mentality and they have every right to. I know my car and I know my limits. When the weather gets bad, I turn off the radio, put both hands on the wheel, and deal with the conditions. I don't rely on my studded tires to drive the road for me. Whatever works for you is fine. I know what works for me. I've driven past plenty of accidents to see people who made stupid mistakes or were unfortunate to not be able to travel in adverse conditions. I've also seen a salt truck lying on its side in a ditch during a snow storm. So, you tell me, which is better, an inexperienced driver with a Ford Explorer be bopping along in the left lane during a white out or the guy with all seasons driving defensively with thrice the normal safe distance between he and the car in front of him?

Just as an aside, I did face the same situation this year at that same intersection I was clipped at last year. In this instance, I was the lead car and when I saw the turn signal of the approaching car, I made the effort to get the hell out of the way. This time, I stopped just quick enough to notice that the girl couldn't even turn; she slid right through the intersection in front of my car. Luckily, I still have a front bumper. I did however, need a change of shorts. Not because of the accident, but because I didn't want have to tell my wife I was hit again, in our new car.

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