I’m Not You
It was a bitter cold January in Manitoba, 1977. The daytime high was -27 degrees, slightly colder than the usual winter temps but not the kind of cold that keeps you home. My uncle picked up my older brother and I in his pickup truck, we were all on our way to the mall across town. Inside the already-warm cab was my younger cousin, and we all scooched on the bench seat beside my uncle. Nobody bothered with seat belts – I was too young to know any better and the older two didn’t seem to care.
Four blocks from our house, we took a right from Tremauden onto Settee Avenue. As we rounded the corner, the truck hit ice and because the wheels were turned, it flung us around in a full 360. We ended up facing the same way as we had been heading, just in the middle of the two lane road instead of on the right. It had happened so fast, none of us had time to react. Before we knew what was happening, it was over.
The three of us kids laughed nervously but I could see my uncle was shaken. He was raised in Finland and learned how to drive in snow well before his 16th birthday. He had been driving our frozen Manitoba roads for the past five years without incident. Here was this grown man, 34 years old, shell shocked like he’d been slapped in the face.
He shook his head, gripped the wheel and eased the truck back into our lane. “Lucky no one was coming the other way,” he said gravely, and we all fell into an awkward silence.
That was 43 years ago and I remember it vividly to this day. I think of it every time it snows in Vancouver. I know half the town grew up somewhere else, some place with a real winter, where they learned how to drive in the snow. Some of us grew up in those places but never learned to drive in the snow. I am one of them.
We had left Manitoba by the time I turned 16 so I didn’t get a chance to learn those particular skills. In fact, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 30 years old. Since then I have had occasions to drive in the snow, like when I drove the connector from Kelowna and hit a blizzard in the middle of the summer. I lived for a winter in Calgary so I drove in icy conditions there for a time too. Neither of those experiences made me a confident driver in Vancouver snow conditions. Driving in snow and even slush makes me very anxious, even if I’m only the passenger.
Knowing my limited experience, confidence (and probably ability) to drive in snow, I stay off the roads when we get a bout of real winter. I park my car and take a bus if I need to go far, or walk if I need to go somewhere nearby. I buy less groceries so I can carry them home without throwing out my back. I wear waterproof winter boots with thick, rubbery bottoms which will keep me upright and warm. I wait a beat after the traffic light changes to watch the cars and make sure they can stop before I step off the curb to cross. I’m a much more confident snow-walker than snow-driver.
People try to convince me it’s safe to drive in the slush and snow. To me it feels the same as trying to convince an alcoholic in recovery that they could just have one drink. Um, no. That’s not how it works. Be there one foot or one centimetre of snow, I’m not driving. Period.
“It’s fine if you just drive slowly,” they say, followed by, “it’s everyone else you have to worry about!” and they scoff. It’s this disdainful scoff which pisses me off. Why would they assume I should know how to drive in snow? I live in a city where it rarely snows. Maybe I’m from a place where it NEVER snows. Maybe I’ve never even SEEN snow. And even if I had, and we now know that I certainly have, maybe I never learned how to drive in it. Maybe I drove in it and had a terrible accident and it traumatised me for life. They assume just because they can do it, everyone can or should be able to. Well, I can juggle; why can’t you?
Driving in the snow is a skill you learn, you’re not just born with it. Perhaps the people driving poorly were never taught the correct way to drive for these conditions. Instead of shaking their head and scoffing, some instruction or words of encouragement might help. Go slowly, don’t hit the brakes, don’t floor it if you’re stuck, etc. All great advice for people who are already on the road because they feel like they have to be but are having trouble getting places. Obviously not driving is the safest route, but kudos to them for at least trying to learn by doing.
If I don’t drive in the snow, how will I ever learn to do it with confidence? I won’t. I’ve done it, and while I didn’t have any accidents or slide off the road, I came close. Too close. Terrifyingly close. I personally don’t need that kind of stress so I will do myself and everyone else a favour and stay off the roads until they clear up.
If YOU are a good driver in the snow, I salute you. I’m happy for you.
But I’m not you.