Driving In An (Unexpected) Winter Wonderland

David C. Holzman
by David C. Holzman

I live near Boston, but on February first, I drove down to Northern Virginia, outside of DC, to my sister’s, to get out of the cold and the snow for the month. Don’t laugh. As I write, the second big snow is in progress, and the driving has been interesting–and fun.

We got a couple of feet out here in Clifton, last week. It started on Friday morning, while my sister, brother-in-law, and their two kids were in Pittsburgh for a funeral, and it was supposed to fall through Saturday. They decided they’d come back Friday evening and try to beat most of the storm. They were maybe 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh, barely the first leg of the 250 miles, when they found themselves at a standstill on Rt. 70-76, going east. They didn’t move for four hours.

The worst part about being stuck like that is not knowing what the trouble is, or when it’s going to abate, and so I made several calls to the Pennsylvania turnpike authority for information. I did manage to find out that the trouble was confined to around mile marker 100, but the turnpike authority was repeatedly vague on how long traffic would be stuck. The hold-up: an accident several miles ahead, and a bunch of jack-knifed trucks in between. (I was unable to find any traffic cams on the scene.)

After about two hours of stasis, a plow and some wreckers came through, but wouldn’t let the cars follow them. Then, after another couple of hours, a plow came threading its way through the jackknifed trucks, with a line of cars following. My family got in the line, and out of the jam. As they drove east, they realized they were very lucky not to be going west. On that side, they saw about 20 miles of gridlock.

During the four hours, the engine on the whole time for heat, the 6 cyl. Volvo XC90 used about an eighth of a tank, says my brother-in-law.

All in all, the normally four hour drive took 13 hours. Once beyond the stuck trucks, they were able to drive 35-40mph all the way, with virtually no cars on the road until they got outside of DC. The visibility was bad, and my brother-in-law, Will Meyer, co-owner with Jeff Davis (not the former president of the confederacy) of sureshotinc.com, a video production company, navigated by following the Jersey barriers in the median, and tire tracks. The highways, plowed sporadically, had up to six inches of snow, but the Volvo XC90 took the snow with aplomb, never losing traction. They arrived home at 8:30 AM.

After a day of car deprivation, I took the Honda (‘99 Accord 5 speed) out on Sunday and cruised the hilly, winding, snow and slush covered byways of Clifton, fairly secure with my Nokia snow tires, but repeatedly touching my brakes to check for ice on the road (I have no ABS). The scenery–this is horse country–was spectacular. A few other cars were out on the byways, and a fair number on the main drags through Fairfax County, which had slush, packed snow, and some clear spots. The only mishap I encountered was an abandoned late model Cadillac in Clifton which appeared to have spun into a snowbank.

“Blizzard” number 2 began last night. Out here in Clifton, it hasn’t amounted to much, but it’s worse in Washington, where its coverage continues to dominate the Washington Post’s front page. Today’s Style section features “The snow has fallen and the flakes are on the road,” with writer Monica Hesse’s account of a “pathetic rear-wheel drive” BMW “spinning his tires uselessly as he tried again and again to climb an unplowed street;” an SUV “blithely driving around with three feet of snow piled on top;” and a Suburban trying to pass a fire truck on “a narrow Dupont Circle street in the middle of blizzard conditions.”

(Note to Monica: rear-wheel drive is NOT pathetic! And we managed quite well in my youth in Boston with snows on the RWD ‘57 Chevy wagon, and in the RWD Peugeot 404 wagon with non-snow radials. Even my less-than-2,000 lb. RWD ‘77 Toyota Corolla with the 1.2 liter and 5-speed, and 50 lbs of trunk ballast managed quite well in DC snows, thank you. Sheesh!)

Which reminds me of one experience during the two decades I lived in DC. During one snow storm in the mid-‘80s, driving home from work I found myself immobilized in a long underpass behind about 60 cars in my old Corolla (which had belonged to David Albright, one of the then-future Iraq weapons inspectors before I purchased it for $450, but that’s another story). Most Washington drivers don’t know how to drive in snow, and so I got out of my car and walked to the front of the line, where just as I suspected, some poor slob was halfway up the ramp out of the underpass, spinning his tires and getting nowhere. I got his attention, and explained to him that in order to climb the ramp he needed to get as much momentum as possible on the flat part, and then ease off the accelerator for the climb. Then I went down the line of cars, explaining the technique. An hour or so later, I was on my way home.

David C. Holzman
David C. Holzman

I'm a freelance journalist covering science, medicine, and automobiles.

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  • SilverCoupe SilverCoupe on Feb 11, 2010

    We have 70 inches of snow here in Philadelphia so far this year, 30 of that in the last week. I am going to side with the AWD bunch. Since we usually do not get this much snow in Philly, I go with the AWD, instead of having to put on snow tires, which might never get used in a season. The AWD makes the car more stable in wet weather, too. I managed with a rear wheel driver in the sixties (you can guess which one from my icon), but I certainly did get it stuck occasionally. In the seventies, I had some aggressive snows on my FWD Scirocco, and never got stuck, even though I lived in Ithaca. Nor did I have any problems with my FWD Chrysler Laser in the eighties. My RWD Turbo Supra in the nineties was a real pain - it couldn't even get from the side of the road to the center, due to the camber in the road! My current AWD TT and my wife's AWD WRX have never gotten stuck, even without snows. She says that she loves driving around the stuck BMW's in our neighborhood. I will agree though that the RWD cars have been more fun to drive, as they take more skill. The Audi is just too competent - you can't screw up in it.

  • Bruce from DC Bruce from DC on Feb 12, 2010

    I learned to drive in the snow in 1960s American RWD sedans, which my father always equipped with snow tires. With some extra weight in the trunk and a manual tranny (so you could use a 2d gear start), they were pretty effective. FWD cars understeer, which most people find less alarming than oversteer . . . which is why they have the reputation that they have. Driving back from dropping my wife at C-SPAN Wed. night, I watched a guy in an unidentified SUV do a 360 at low speed. I'm still not sure what he did to accomplish that; I had driven over the same spot and it was just snow-covered. Fortunately, he plowed into a snowbank and didn't hurt anything or anyone. I'm a big believer in true snow tires. We had a Toyota Previa AWD that I put 4 Blizzaks on (when we had a vacation home in West Virginia) and that car passed any number of SUVs with all-seasons that were totally stuck. Talk about a double-take from their drivers! A decent awd or 4wd SUV (like my Honda Pilot) is pretty much unstoppable with snow tires . . . until the snow gets over 2 feet deep, at which point, the car high centers (floats on the snow). There is no cure for that except higher ground clearance. Other AWD vehicles should be as successful, but at lesser snow depths because of their lower ground clearance. One small annoyance with modern electronics-laden cars is that vehicle stability control/traction control systems -- while useful on smooth, slick surfaces -- can be an impediment in deep, soft snow, where you want the car to dig a little bit. The "VSC" in my Pilot seems to tolerate a second of vigorous wheelspin when the vehicle is stopped, but then abruptly chops the throttle. I don't think this feature is adequately explained in the owner's manual.

  • Stephen Never had such a problem with my Toyota products.
  • Vulpine My first pickup truck was a Mitsubishi Sport... able to out-accelerate the French Fuego turbo by Renault at the time. I really liked the brand back then because they built a model for every type of driver, including the rather famous 300/3000GT AWD sports car (a car I really wanted, but couldn't afford.)
  • Vulpine A sedan version of either car makes it no longer that car. We've already seen this with the Mustang Mach-E and almost nobody acknowledges it as a Mustang.
  • Vulpine Not just Chevy, but GM has been shooting itself in the foot for the last three decades. They've already had to be rescued once in that period, and if they keep going as they are, they will need another rescue... assuming the US govt. will willing to lose more money on them.
  • W Conrad Sedans have been fine for me, but I were getting a new car, it would be an SUV. Not only because less sedans available, but I can't see around them in my sedan!