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Snow Problem: Too Much, Not Enough and Why Can't People Drive?

January 18, 2007

With all respect to Will Shannon, who posted about Madison, WI's snow problem earlier this week over at City of Tiny Lights, I thought I would toss in my two bits, mostly taken from my commute this morning. You see, since I live in the South, I had LOTS of time to ponder things such as this while stuck in standstill traffic on my daily commute.

I live in North Carolina, but I grew up in Indiana. I know how to drive on snow, or when it's snowing, or sleeting, or there's a spot of freezing rain coming down. This is, apparently, privileged knowledge as, whenever there is the slightest permutation in the weather down here, people go apeshit. It's very frustrating knowing that the road conditions would allow for normal 55 mph travel only to be stuck behind a woman who is freaking out, traveling 15 mph, and there's a quarter mile gap between the front of her bumper and the rear of the next car in front of her. After all, we wouldn't want to go suddenly batty and not be able to stop, thus rear-ending the person in front of her.

This was my morning. All aching 60 minutes of it (normal commute time is about 25-30 minutes). One thing that really amuses me, though, is not just the inability to drive in it, nor the freaking out, nor the mass confusion that it brings. It's the I'm-going-to-be-so-careful-that-I-won't-get-into-a-wreck-but-I'll-worry-more-about-what-the-next-guy-is-doing-and-so-I-won't-pay-proper-attention-to-what-is-going-on-around-me-and-therefore-be-a-hazard-hahahahahahahaahahaha attitude.

Take, for example, the woman whom I referenced above. She is literally driving down the freeway at 15 mph (unfortunately, when I got onto the interstate, someone was in the on-ramp going even slower, so I could only get around one of them). The back end of her car is sliding a bit from time to time, and she is freaking out. I could see her hunched over the wheel like a vulture over the rotting corpse of a zebra, her big scared eyes sizing up every car that came near her and staying a healthy quarter of a mile behind the next car in line. I am not exaggerating here...she actually put on her brakes whenever someone tucked into line behind the car ahead of her so that she would keep that 1/4 mile cushion. The truly remarkable thing was--and this is the thing that blew my mind--that, despite all of her cautious driving and watching what EVERYONE else was doing, she was driving NOT in the clean areas where cars' tires had already gone. She was driving in the piles of slush that accumulate between the grooves cut by the cars that had already passed, which explained why she kept losing traction on the back end.

I got around her as quickly (and safely) as possible. Others were traveling slowly, but not as ridiculously as this woman. There were some areas where rubbernecking (which is always intelligent, even under optimal conditions...but I must say, the wreck they were gawking at truly was spectacular...and both of the guys were out of their cars and upright, calling for help on their phones, so I assume they were uninjured) slowed things down, and of course the major intersections with the interstates were horrific. Mostly, it was the one woman who annoyed me. And some jackass in a BMW. I personally was hoping he'd find a quick trip into a ditch and ruin his little prize car. Prick. However, these scenarios didn't happen to just me this morning. All of my friends at work had similar issues while driving in. But even their sad tales of woe were not even the worst of the morning.

No, my poor wife got up with the kids, got them ready, loaded them in the car and drove from Durham to Wake Forest because no one had bothered to report that my daughter's school had closed. She waited as long as she could, knowing that there would be people out there driving at 15 mph with a quarter-mile distance between themselves and the next car in line, so she would require extra time. None of the radio stations, which are supposed to report ALL of the closings, did so. Instead, she called me on the cell phone once I got to work and I had to check the website in order to see if the school was closed, which indeed it was. My poor wife then had to turn back around and come home in the middle of that mess, because she couldn't have gotten ahold of me while she was still in Durham. That's not how it works. No, I didn't get to work in time to take her call until she was almost in Wake Forest (it's about 30 miles).

It would be natural to blame the ineptitude of the schools for this, however, I lay none of the blame at their feet. In fact, when most administrators and teachers were reporting to school, the roads were probably fairly good. We were under a winter weather advisory, but that's nothing major. However, the weather forecasters were all telling us how this would be largely a non-event, there'd be a little sleet, maybe some freezing rain, and then it would quickly turn to rain and we'd be alright. Nothing to fear. Nothing at all.

It turned out, though, that the weather forecasters were like that guy in Iraq who kept denying that the American troops were in Baghdad. "Nothing to worry, the Americans are not fighting to take over the airport," he'd report...all the while with gunfire and rocket explosions in the background. That's kind of how it was this morning. To paraphrase: "Well, we missed it again...we thought sure that, despite the temperatures being WELL below freezing, that the rain somehow magically wouldn't freeze. But don't worry! Even though it's snowing, the soil temperatures are warm enough there won't be much of an accumulation. Pay no attention to the two inches of snow on the ground! This will be out of here by noon!" In fact, when I came home this evening at 6:00, it was still raining. Morons.

But that's the problem. The weather forecasters down here are always absolutely 100% wrong. They can't tell a cold front from a store front. I remember a couple of years ago when they said "Areas east of I-95 will experience all rain and no ice, but areas west of I-95 will get ice and snow...so watch out." It was 100% flipped. We got the rain, the eastern part of the state was buried in ice. Good job, guys. Wanna pick my lottery numbers for me?

When I lived in South Bend, where they deal with lake effect snow every winter, the weather forecasting was a helluva lot more accurate than here. Sure, they'd fudge their forecasts by saying "if the wind does this, this place will get snow...but if the wind does this, this place will get snow." The thing was, they got it right. If the wind did this, this place got snow! And South Bend isn't exactly the sprawling metropolis that's going to suck in the very best and brightest weather forecasters in the world. It certainly isn't as big as the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill-Cary megacity. It seems that most of the time I could run out onto my back porch, stick my finger in my mouth and then raise it up in the air and do a better job forecasting the weather. In fact, I'm not too sure that's NOT what they're doing at these television studios.

So, the major headaches caused this morning should have been avoidable, especially since I suspect that several of the people traveling back and forth were scrambling to go and get their kids either from the schools where they had already been dropped or were turning around to go home after finding out their kids' schools had been canceled. Had the weather people had any clue about what was actually going to happen rather than the hand-waving and such that they did all night last night as well as the poo-pooing of the winter weather advisory ("Well, this isn't going to turn out to be much...so nyeh!"), a lot of the commuter headaches could have been avoided. The other major blame here is the radio and television stations that don't do their jobs and report in a timely fashion as to what's happening. When growing up in Indiana, I remember every few minutes on mornings like this (when real winter systems would hit, not just a measly two inches of snow), the morning zoo crews actually stopped their nonsense and the whole morning long it was weather update, school closing/delay updates. No commercials. No chatter. Just the important news. And more than one radio station carried it. ALL of the radio stations carried it. It was a service they provided their listeners.

But I guess that, like even partially reliable weather forecasts, is just too much to ask.

We have another weather system moving in Sunday night/Monday morning. This one looks considerably bigger than the one we got this morning. We'll see if anyone has learned any lessons, or whether they're going to go about skipping through the daisies and tossing rose petals around when it comes to forecasting the weather. I'm sure one of these times their attitude of "if we don't see it, it's not really happening" might ACTUALLY work.

4 comments:

Ψ*Ψ said...

THANK YOU! People here can't drive at all. It's much worse when it's even raining. God forbid it snows. I can recall several times that schools were cancelled in light of a blizzard forecast that never came about. Once, they were cancelled in the middle of the day. Also interesting is the occasional "light dusting" this area sees. Once, a light dusting was two feet of snow. Another time, it was a massive ice storm that knocked out power to half the city.

Chemgeek said...

I love living in MN. Usually, the first snow is a little tricky. A little, "Hi, I'm snow. Remember how to drive on me?" After that, most people can drive just fine. It is always easy to recognize the Arizona or Florida transplant.

The most annoying thing is shoveling the 14 inches of "1-2 inches" the weather man reported. I know it's an inexact science, but this season has been ridiculous.

I will give MN credit though. The benefit of taxing the living stink out of us plebs is the massive number of snow plows. There must be 1 snowplow for every 10 miles of highway. My street is usually cleared by 9 AM by no fewer than 3 different snowplows. I used to live in Montana (lots of snow). The county literally had 2 snowplows.

Will Shannon said...

So your local weatherman is like Baghdad Bob?

Seriously, though, weather forcasting in Madison is a joke. Of our three television "chief meterologists" (David George, Gary Cannalte and Bob Lindmeier), they never say the same thing and all three are usually wrong.

At least in Chicago we had Tom Skilling (AKA Tommy Skillethead)...I think that he could actually control the weather.

the iNDefatigable mjenks said...

Actually...Baghdad Bob (thanks...couldn't remember his name) is better looking than Elizabeth Gardner...

I remember the day two years ago when we got a quarter of an inch of snow...and Raleigh was in literal gridlock for 8 hours or so. Thankfully, when I went to go home, Roxboro had cancelled earlier in the day, so my commute was much simpler. Plus, I figured the cops would all be caught in traffic, too.

I miss snow a lot. Sometimes, I think I wouldn't mind shoveling the 14 inches.

As far as snowplows go...once I actually saw a snowplow in the ditch down here. It was one of those rare moments when I really wish I had a cell phone with a camera.