Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Zero degrees East.

Wikipedia tells us that the United Kingdom straddles the geographic mid-latitudes between 50-60 N from the equator. It is also positioned on the western seaboard of Eurasia, the world's largest land mass. These boundary conditions allow convergence between moist maritime air and dry continental air. In this area, the large temperature variation creates instability and this is a major factor that influences the often unsettled weather the country experiences, where many types of weather can be experienced in a single day. Sometimes, shit happens.

Every now and again, it really does, and I love it. A common complaint of the English is that it’s always bloody raining. Well, yes, it does quite a lot, but at least that’s weather. When you go outside of a morning and all is grey, there’s no wind, no rain, no sunshine, an unremitting ocean of grey cloud spoiling your view of the sky, when there doesn’t seem to be any weather whatsoever. That’s what I don’t like.

Last week it snowed. Hard. We’re currently bracing ourselves for another attack, it’s unusual for it to snow heavily in the UK before Christmas, but it does happen. And every time it does it seems to take everybody by surprise. Driving in to work through the crisp, deep, even snow, driving a little more gingerly than before but still at a reasonable speed that I thought commensurate with common sense, I was constantly amazed by how everybody defaults to a panic mode when the first few flakes start to flutter down.

People are falling off the road right, left and centre. People are giving up before they leave their own driveway. People are driving everywhere at 4mph. There is a reasonably steep hill on my route to work, on a minor road that doesn’t see either the gritters or the snowplough. On this hill I was stuck behind a Rover 75 being driven ever-so-carefully by an experienced driver. He was carrying so little speed up the hill that he couldn’t make it up the other side, his front wheels spun in futility as the car slid back to the valley floor.

I work at a car dealership and the ability to drive cars around is an important part of how we make our living. In order to sell a car, firstly the customer needs to be able to see it. After the car has been dug from its wintry cocoon, it next needs to be thawed out ready to be driven. And then we can’t take the customer for a test drive because the roads are too dangerous.

The majority of cars we sell are rear-wheel-drive saloon cars, and the members of staff who drive these all abandoned them and took to our fleet of front-wheel-drive Mercedes A-Class courtesy cars. A C350CDI, with 18” AMG wheels with low-profile tyres, is next to useless in the snow. I got marooned because I had visited a customer and parked in his driveway. Even shovelling a snow-free trench for each of the wheels couldn’t help me, every time the tyres broke traction the rear of car would slew to the left, it’s natural inclination for power oversteer shining through. In contrast, the A-Class, with its front-wheel-drive and puny engine, dances through the snow like Bambi.

So, pathetic as it is, for the few days a year that the white stuff makes its presence felt, we may as well shut up shop and go home. Nobody visits the dealership because they’d rather be wrapped up warm at home watching six hundred and twenty seven channels of garbage on satellite television. And going home appeals to me, because I love the snow; it gives me a chance to play.

In Scandinavia, skid-pan training is mandatory for all new drivers. We don’t typically get a tenth as much snow as they do during a given year, but still, without training our drivers have absolutely no idea what to do if the going gets slippery. A secluded, snowy road makes a fantastic place to build up a bit of experience and confidence. In the development where I live, there is a road that skirts around it for about half a mile in an arc with fairly constant radius. It’s a quiet road and when the snow settles there is rarely any traffic at all. In these conditions it makes a fantastic place to learn car control. With a little lift-off-oversteer and dialling in a little opposite lock,  In my front-wheel-drive Audi I can hold a four-wheel drift virtually the whole way around the arc, providing I judge it right.

In a rear-wheel drive car things are a little different, clumsily add a bit too much throttle and the rear end will suddenly want to overtake the front, the undoing of many an unseasoned show-off. Start with a nice easy front-drive car first, then build up to a right-wheel-drive machine. If you can cope with an RWD machine in the snow and drive confidently, you should be able to cope with anything. All you guys in Canada and the Northern States will know this already. The fact is that you guys are far better at coping than we are. Partially, you’ve had more practice. Partially, you’re better equipped. Winter tyres are a formality, not a rarity. Across much of Europe it is mandatory that you possess a set of Winter tyres, in the UK we cling to our all-season rubber with some tenacity.

Very little I have written above is any different to what millions of folk have written before me. Winter is lovely to look at, but when it hits in the UK and we’re not ready, it sucks. It’s a bit of a mystery why this is always the case. In Canada, if all the businesses closed when there was snow on the ground, nothing would ever be open. In the UK, it snows and we all go back to bed. This year, the snow came hard and fast and stayed for a good few days. For at least three days it didn’t change. People stayed at home for the first day, then a few brave folk ventured to work the next day, by the third day most people were back at work, and the snow was still there, the roads were still as bad, and it was still just as cold.

It boils down to laziness. The UK loves an opportunity to take the day off work, but after a couple of days of seeing other people coping, the excuses run out. Of course, health and safety saw the schools remain closed, but what do they do in colder climes in Europe, America and beyond where snow is less of a novelty? How come the rest of the world can cope? Maybe we can. Maybe it’s all just media sensationalism. Maybe we just really, really like to panic.

Lets reserve the panicking for when the snow is waist deep, and still there after a fortnight. And then I’ll just say “bollocks” and go into hibernation.