Thursday, November 18, 2010

What's it like to drive in winter?

I write this post for all the billions of people out there who never get to experience a typical Canadian winter and as a result, have no idea what it's like to drive in it.

For starters, it's cold. Whereas many people cringe thinking about putting their ass on a flaming hot seat that has sat in the sun for hours, in this case you're thinking about the sudden shock of sitting on a block of ice. People whose cars are equipped with seat heaters are happy people. It gets so cold that cars truly need to be equipped with engine block heaters, which help keep the engine from becoming so cold that it becomes difficult, if not impossible to start. Before you can drive your car, you have to scrape ice and snow off of the windows. Many people don't bother doing this properly (or at all), because they're too lazy and so put themselves and others in danger because they'll end up driving while peering out through a tiny peep-hole of defrosted windshield. Others have the luxury of parking their cars in a garage and so get to skip the scraping part, smug in their ability to start their car and drive away. I fall into such a group, but I try not to rub others' noses in it. Try....

Once you're on your way on a winter road, you have a whole new set of challenges to overcome. The roads are filled with drivers occupying every part of the experience and confidence spectrum. This means you'll be sharing the road equally with speed-happy aggressive drivers who don't see any reason to slow down at one end to overly cautious steering wheel grippers who stare out their windshield with a look of unbridled horror while crawling along at one third of the speed limit. The roads themselves are a smörgåsbord of conditions, from bare pavement to patches of ice to loose snow and combinations of those three. Throw in the invisible black ice or drift of snow (think snow dune) and you have a potential game of bumper cars that would be the envy of any country fair.

All of this of course would be dangerous enough if all other conditions were perfect, but they are not. For one thing, many drivers do not feel the need to put proper winter tires on their vehicles, which makes them unpredictably capable of randomly sliding all over the road in front of you. If it's snowing or the wind is blowing (or worse - both), visibility can be reduced to the point where you can't see more than a few feet in front of you. This lack of visibility can come on quite suddenly, last many seconds. When you're cruising along at 90km/h, this will cause your heart to skip a few beats. Snow can also get stirred up into a vicious frenzy by large tractor trailer trucks. Sometimes, you just follow the red lights of the vehicle in front of you and hope that they stay on the road.

Like a warrior passing fallen comrades lying dead on the battlefield, you will also pass vehicles that have slid into the ditch or wrapped themselves around various pieces of road infrastructure, or collided with other vehicles. Although you have the urge to look, your momentary inattention to the road in front of you is your almost guaranteed ticket to join them in their folly. Best to keep your eyes straight ahead, use gentle application of the steering wheel, gas pedal and brakes, leave room between you and the vehicle ahead and hope that today you will not be surrounded by a bunch of crazy adrenaline junkies who have a death wish and don't particularly care who they take along with them.

In other words........ it's a ton of fun.

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