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Seattle Winter Driving - A Five Step Class

As we know, Seattle comes to a screeching halt the second that a snowflake hits the pavement. Some of these issues are beyond our direct control. The articulated buses, for example, instantly crash if there is even a hint of ice or snow. All of them. Instantly. Since there are a lot of them, and they are quite large, and they tend to travel on major streets, they serve as a kind of auto-destruct mechanism for the city. During the "snow storm" (read: light dusting) just before Thanksgiving, 200 buses crashed or got stuck. Really. If terrorists could crash 200 busses at the same time, blocking major roads across the area, we would be knee deep in Homeland Security people. Perhaps they could get us better busses.

Anyway, we can't control busses or the weather, but what we can control is - drum roll - ourselves. *gasp* I know, I know.  You might be saying to yourself, "I can't be expected to actually, you know, drive on ice or snow. That's crazy talk!" If we can all stop hyperventilating when we see snow, we might take a moment to consider that some places get a lot of snow and it stays on the ground all winter. Those cities still function. "Well sure, but we have hills, man. Hills! Those other places are all flat," you might counter. I do enjoy skiing in the winter and one thing that I have noticed when I have driven to ski resorts all over North America is that they tend to have a) snow, and b) mountains, yet they remain in business, year after year. Their customers are able to get to them, despite the snow and non-flatness. Hmmm. How could this be? Let's take a moment to think about how these curious people are able to drive on ice and snow without crashing.

Here, then, is my free, five step class on how to drive any vehicle in snow. It works on front-wheel drive cars, all-wheel drive, rear-wheel drives - anything. You won't need to pay anything, or buy any special equipment. It also works on ice, sleet, and even rain.

Step 1: Don't have bald tires. Many people avoid doing maintenance on their vehicles because who wants to spend money on that when there are so many other, shiny things that we can buy? I mean, really! If you are one of those people, let's talk about the round, black rubber thingies that hold your car up off of the ground. Those are called "tires." When tires are new, they have these kinds of grooves in them called "tread." The tread bites into snow and helps keep your car or SUV from crashing. This is going to sound crazy, but after a while that tread starts to wear away. Once in a while, you need to spend 30 seconds and look at your tires to see if any tread is left - or actually, no. You can just go to a tire store and ask the nice person who works there to look at your tires for you. Who can be bothered to look at all four tires, anyway? You should do this *before* it starts snowing because after you start sliding into the ditch, backwards, it is probably too late.

Step 2: When you are driving your vehicle, just drive your vehicle. Some of the next steps are going to require a lot of your concentration and attentiveness, so you will have to put down the phone, your coffee, lipstick, mascara, bowl of cereal, book, etc., put both hands on the wheel, and look out of the big window in the front. In fact, put all of those other things in the trunk so you wont be tempted. Your driver's seat is your work area while you are driving, and your work area should always be clean and free of obstructions. It is not necessary to wear safety glasses.

Step 3: Slow Down. This is going to come as a shock to some Seattle drivers, and there is no easy way to break it to you, so I'll just say it. Snow is slippery. I know. Take a moment to absorb that. OK. Because snow is slippery, we have to change the way that we drive when we drive on snow. Crazy. What an inconvenience! Don't these people know that we have places to go?

We could talk about static and dynamic friction, Newton's first law of motion, etc., but the condensed version is just this: slow down. For example, suppose we are pulling up to a stop sign and the road is icy. If we just drive right up to the sign and step on the brakes as we might do on dry pavement, we will probably shoot right through the intersection and crash into one of those city busses that is already crashed there. Why? Snow is slippery. Crashing involves a lot of tedious paperwork and inconvenience, so if we want to avoid that, then we might - what? - slow down. We need to start slowing down for the stop sign a lot earlier then normal. This requires a) looking out of the big window in the front and b) thinking and planning ahead, which is why we have Step 2. If you slow down gradually, then you will be more likely to be able to stop. If you are driving more slowly, then you will be able to control your vehicle better, make turns, and generally not take out innocent bystanders, hedges, or mailboxes.

Step 4: Try not to use your brakes. If you slow down, then you will need to use your brakes less, which means less opportunities for sliding wildly out of control. Sure, your fancy car might have anti-lock brakes and traction control, or maybe even all-wheel drive, but those systems only kick in *after* you have already screwed up. They attempt to snatch you back from the edge of oblivion, but they can only do so much. This is where you have to do more work. You - not the computer - have to look out the window with your Mark 1 eyeball and plan ahead. Maybe slow down a bit so you can anticipate what the driver ahead of you might do. Maybe accelerate more slowly, and slow down for stops more gradually. It's a hassle, I know - your time is precious and all of this driving business gets in the way of returning that urgent text message, but there is no avoiding it, I'm afraid.

Step 5: Gears. Now, you might have read Step 3 and said to yourself, "Ah ha! Well, Mr. Smartypants, I can't slow down for a stop sign when I am on a hill because there is, like, gravity, and stuff." I will grant you that, yes, there is gravity, and yes, it does make your vehicle go faster if you sit idly by and do nothing. You could always stamp on your brakes, but then you will probably slide. In Step 4 we learned that we need to try not to use our brakes. So how on earth are we supposed to get down a hill slowly without using brakes? It's inconceivable! Well, I am hear to help. Somewhere in your car you have some kind of stick or lever that you use to make your car go forward. You move it to "D" to drive and "P" to park. There is even an "R" to make it "reverse" which is fancy talk for going backwards. Amazing. If you have a closer look, you might notice that there are some other letters, and maybe some numbers. There might be an "N" for "neutral," but on past the "D" there might be an "L" or a "2" or a "1". Did you know that your car has more than one forward gear? Just like gears on a bike, the "1" or "L" is for going slowly, then "2" goes a bit faster, "3" a bit faster, and so on. If you are about to go down a hill on snow, move your gear stick out of "D" and put it in one of those lower gears. If you imagine yourself on a bike at the top of a hill, and you put the bike in 1st gear and coasted down the hill, what would happen? You would accelerate to terminal velocity, where wind resistance equals gravity, at which point you would be going like blazes. Unlike a bicycle, a vehicle has an engine, and because of a thing called "compression" it will not speed up like a bike *if you put it in a lower gear*. Remember - the lower the gear, the slower the car goes. If you put your car in "L" (low) or 1 at the top of even the steepest hill and, with the engine running, you take your feet off of the pedals, your car will walk itself right down that hill and it will probably never exceed 10mph. You need to go out and try that on a non-snowy day so you can see for yourself how it works in your car. Then when it snows, and you have to go down the big, scary hill, you will know what to expect.

That's it. You don't have to buy anything (except maybe tires, if your old ones were bald), sign up for a membership, attend meetings, or anything. Follow these five steps and you can drive nearly any car in ice and snow - and not crash into me. Thank you.

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