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Road hazards

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 1989. Road hazards. Canadian Forest Service, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Staff Newsletter, November:15–17.

An American friend of mine who is an accountant calls the months between March and June of each year "the silly season"; at this time, thousands of otherwise sane individuals suddenly go mad and begin demanding strange and improbable things from their tax advisors. A similar phenomenon begins here in Canada every November, but in a much more exhilarating manner: thousands of otherwise sane individuals choose not to change their driving habits in response to the dreaded Canadian winter.

As a former Montrealer, I consider myself to be something of a connoisseur of what I shall euphemistically call exciting driving; indeed, when I was learning to drive, Montreal ranked third behind Rome and Mexico City in terms of cities with the worst traffic accident records. From these statistics arose the myth that newborn Montrealers are thrown out into rush-hour traffic and that only the survivors live to gain their licences. (I assume it's a myth, but then, I left town before I was old enough to be entrusted with the truth.) Montreal is still justly famed for its drivers (see any travel guide on Montreal for details), but then most other cities seem to be fighting hard to catch up.

In winter, the excitement starts with those who relentlessly refuse to put on their snow tires until the end of November, but this is only an appetizer. Here's another one, based on a rough and unscientific estimate of the proportion of people in my own city [Sault Ste. Marie (Ontario) at the time this was written] who drive through freezing rain or blizzards with their headlights off: the figure seems to fluctuate between 10 and 20%, depending on how crowded the roads are at any given time (the more drivers, the fewer have lights on). For some reason, drivers of white or grey cars are represented out of all proportion to their numbers, as such folk seem to have a deep-seated desire to go unseen by others. But this sort of behavior goes hand in glove (for those who don't consider having gloves in the car to be an act worthy only of a wimpy southerner) with yet another interesting phenomenon.

With one's headlights off, the various gauges on the instrument panel are also unlit, and become almost impossible to read. Of course, this makes the somewhat speculative assumption that drivers are (or should be) interested in the speed at which they're travelling, a parameter that ostensibly relates to the posted speed limit. Here's a quick trivia question: what is the legally posted speed limit in most towns? With a very few exceptions, the posted limit is 50 km/hr. This no doubt explains why, when I'm in a hurry and driving at a sedate 60 km/hr, I'm passed by every second car. On a bright summer day, with clear streets, this lends little or no interest to one's daily commute, but on snow-covered streets, it guarantees that you won't fall asleep at the wheel. Whoever manages to market adrenaline in a drink that tastes like coffee will be rich beyond the wildest dreams of poor middle-class mortals such as me. Of course, most of the same drivers who can't be bothered to turn on their headlights are the ones who also travel 20 km/hr over the limit within kissing distance of the bumpers of the cars ahead of them. Lest I sound too snide, I should point out that there is a carefully considered logic to such behavior; if you can't see where you're going, you might as well stay close to someone who can.

Speaking of speed, I also must admit to admiring those drivers who can't be bothered waiting for you to finish pushing a stuck car out of a drift. The ones who see you pushing and pull around to pass you without offering to help are not so bad; they can see what you're doing, and they probably know better than to risk a hernia on the way to work. The ones who pass right in front of you just as the car begins to move are a little more difficult to understand, since they might actually get hit when the spinning wheels of the stuck car suddenly catch and the car hurtles forward, pitching you on your face. It's not getting any easier being a good samaritan, which is no doubt why there are so few of us left. Of course, there's a third group of drivers, the ones who get annoyed at drivers who have gotten themselves into an accident (or who simply got stuck), and honk horns and roll down windows to curse in response to a delay of a few minutes on the way to work.

Here's another trivia question. How much time do you save en route to work by doubling your speed in town? The vast majority of us can reach our destinations by car in less than 30 minutes even on a bad day. If you double your speed (from 50 to 100 km/hr), this ought to save 15 minutes. As driving 100 km/hr down a city street ought to attract the attention of even the most mild-mannered police officer and draw them out of the security of the donut shop, let's be more practical. If you increased speed by only 50%, to 75 km/hr, you'd save only 7.5 minutes. Of course, if you live closer to work, the time savings drop even further. But I can understand the thrill of speed, and I certainly wouldn't want to waste even 4 minutes en route to work. Why, in that length of time, I could actually pour myself a coffee and get it back to my desk without spilling a drop! (Indeed, with that extra little kick of adrenaline, who needs coffee?)

If you're like me, you're probably half asleep on your way to work, and that 4 minutes' worth of coffee could be a lifesaver when the boss comes looking for you. I find that one fine way to get the old adrenaline flowing (and bypass the need for coffee) is to follow closely behind a driver who leaves for work in such a hurry that he forgets to clean the snow off the car. Of course, since drivers don't have to pay attention to anything other than what lies ahead, why would we need to look out the rear or side windows? I don't know about you, but the thrill of cutting off other drivers (better yet, running them clear off the road) is why I learned to drive in the first place. Of course, when you hit peak speed, you also scatter large clouds of snow behind you, often interspersed with weighty chunks that fly off and strike the windscreen of anyone following too close. The thump on the windscreen, and the resultant surge of adrenaline, really get the old heart pumping, even without the added thrill of a few seconds of obstructed vision. (Then again, you might be one of the few who actually has windshield wipers that still work, in which case the obstructed vision is scarcely worth mentioning.) The snow clouds also obstruct vision, unless you're driving far enough behind to stop safely, but the obstructed vision shouldn't harm you; on the other hand, the next guy who zooms past you with lights off, snow spraying from his roof, won't be bothered by such trivial hazards as not being able to see where he's going. If you're really lucky, he'll even drive into the back of the guy who caused the artificial blizzard in the first place.

Another point bears mentioning, even though it's a fairly trivial one. (You'll have noticed that I do tend to concentrate on these little nitpicky things.) The same people who never clear snow from their cars also never think to clean their licence plates. Technically, having an unreadable licence plate is illegal, but who ever heard of someone getting a ticket for having a dirty licence plate? In addition to posing no great risk, it helps ensure that no one reports your car for reckless driving when you indulge in that other great joy of northern winters, a quick jolt of alcohol to warm you up until the car heater kicks in.

The use of alcohol to warm you in winter is not widely known to be a myth. Alcohol is a vasodilator, which means that it opens wide your blood vessels and the resultant rush of blood to your extremities warms you. This is fine if you're planning to move quickly to somewhere warm, but if you happen to get stranded somewhere in your car, it also ensures that you lose heat quickly enough that you will soon be suffering from exposure. (Digression: do you have a warm blanket in your car in case you end up in a ditch between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie? Of course not. Only tenderfoot southerners like me do.) Another interesting side-effect of alcohol consumption is its effect on your reaction time. Everyone knows that there are specific blood alcohol levels at which your thinking and reaction speed are impaired; what's not as well known is that these limits are currently set too high. Recent research has begun to show that there is significant impairment of your functioning at levels well below the current legal limits.

As you might expect, I can come up with a pretty good list of little things you can do to make driving even more fun. Neglect to keep your windshield wiper reservoirs topped up. Don't get a tune-up, and see how often you can stall in heavy traffic. (The new pollution standards imposed on automakers every year are a good start towards making our air breathable again, but what proportion of us had our emission systems checked in the last year? Most of the pollution comes from poorly tuned cars, not from the new ones; a poorly tuned car also uses much more gas and is harder to start in the winter.) Stop on a level crossing and see whether a train comes along: on the basis of the provincial accident statistics, the odds of winning at this game are better than for playing the 6/49 [a provincial lottery with odds of 14 million to 1 against winning], and we all play 6/49, don't we? Needless to say, you can make this game more fun for other participants by pulling up so closely behind another car stopped on the tracks that neither of you can move if a train comes along. (This particular game has lots of adherents, at least in my neighborhood, but I rarely get to play... the lights at the corner change too quickly, and I never get to stop on the tracks long enough for things to get really interesting.)

There's a widespread belief that driving is one of those dull chores, like brushing one's teeth, that should be gotten over with as quickly as possible so that you can get on with more interesting things. I gave this myth a little thought, came up with this essay, and now I look forward to driving once again. See you out on those mean streets!

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