Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Clear, Unpleasant Danger:- Black Ice

The Rover had ice on the windscreen this morning and it took me a good five minutes to clear it. It was different to the usual stuff we get which tends to be a feathery, furry kind of growth; this was a gossamer thin layer of sheet ice, very resilient to scraper attack. But this, so far has been the only visual manifestation of the English annual cold spell.

I say visual manifestation because the icy shell that had enveloped the car was self-evident as it sat there, refusing to thaw despite the engine running and the de-mist on full. This time last year the roads all looked very different, a loosely packed duvet of snow cloaked all the roads of East Anglia. But everybody, to some extent knows how to deal with snow. It’s when the snow isn’t there that the fun really begins.

I love driving in snow. I love the fact that the housing estate on which I live has a road running through it that carves a single constant radius curve and, if the snow is right and you can balance the throttle and steering sufficiently well, you can hold a 30-40 degree drift right the way around. I love the fact that I usually drive a front wheel drive car, which skips and dances Bambi-style through the snow where other German cars flail around hopelessly.

I love the way it looks. It’s pretty but dramatic at the same time. I love the way it sounds; not just the crunch underfoot but the extra layer of sound-dampening it provides that causes every noise to mellow.

And I love the rareness of it, the fact that it can’t even be relied upon to happen on a yearly basis. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. 

Today I find myself believing that the presence of snow on the roads makes driving safer, for the simple reason that people see it laying there and adopt an immediate panic status. Rather than adapting their driving technique to suit the changing conditions, they’ll go through a state-change to suddenly driving as if it were their very first time behind the wheel. They respond to the crisis facing them by driving everywhere at 15mph.

Do you think that, in Russia, Canada and swathes of America where snow presents an issue, everybody drives at 15mph? No. All you’re achieving is slowing everybody down. And I don’t believe I’m being arrogant and ignoring the safety issues. I may only hold a B-grade in GSCE Physics, but I like to think that I have at least an A-minus in Common Sense. If you drive in a straight line on snow at 30 you’re no more likely to spin off uncontrollably to a fiery death than you would at 15mph.

It’s when you brake or change direction that you could face unplanned trajectory alterations. Brake hard at 30 on snow with any degree of steering angle dialed in and you can expect the car to do the full Torville and Dean on you. So don’t brake hard, then! Feed in the throttle, brake and steering gently. Slow for the corner before you reach it, not as you hit the apex. Such simple steps to avoid catastrophe; it’s mind-blowing how many people pay no heed to them whatsoever.

This time last year the snow sat crisp and deep and even, and everybody, universally, nation-wide forgot how to drive. Cars were falling off the road in great abundance. Gridlock ensued, and all because of a total lack of recourse to common sense. This year the sales of winter tyres have been at an all-time high, and my fear is that people will all march out onto the roads in blizzard conditions, reeling with confidence thanks to the miracle-rubber their 3-series is wearing. And it won’t help them in the slightest. They’ll have more grip available when they need it, for sure. But they’ll still overlook the basic rules of physics.

Ironically, though, it’s when there’s no snow at all that it’s most dangerous. At least the presence of the white stuff suggests that you slow down; driving slowly is no bad thing if done responsibly.

Today, the computer told me it was one degree Celsius as I drove in to work. That temperature remained constant throughout the journey; absolutely perfect for treacherous driving conditions, yet with no real clue on the blacktop that anything should be untoward. Yes; Black Ice.

Whereas people deal with snow in the manner of a man trapped in a small room with a hungry grizzly, people don’t react to cold weather with no snow, at all. They charge around in blissful unawareness, and when accidents happen they tend to be far more sudden, far more pronounced and far less survivable than when the roads are white.

There’s a corner on the road between home and work, out in the countryside, one of my favourite corners for miles around. A slightly off camber left-turn with a blind exit, your line has to be dead on if there’s any risk of oncoming traffic. It’s a real challenge in the dry and it gets easily waterlogged so it’s a proper beast in the rain. Today, though, it was potentially a widowmaker.

Yet at 9:42 this morning nobody seemed to be taking any steps to deal with a corner that, under scrutiny, could be revealed as a sheet of sheer, solid black ice. Not least the guy following me. He was in a Mitsubishi L200, one of those butched-up bulders-specials that the tattooed owners refer to as Mitsubishi Animals rather than acknowledging the prosaic, agricultural reality of their rudimentary diesel workhorse. He roared up behind me, clearly enraged that I should want to slow for corners on such a sunny day. By the time I reached the corner, where I had slowed to around 20 mph he had reduced the gap between us by a matter of a few meters.

I felt wheelslip as I gently accelerated out of the corner. I watched in my rear view mirror; expecting the inevitable. He entered the corner and braked suddenly, but it was to little avail, the nose ran wide as I expected, the front wheels doing a passable impression of a terrier on a waxed floor. Then one of the wheels must have found grip as it suddenly lurched the truck back towards the opposite kerb, the rear axle following suit. He didn’t actually come off the road, but it was more from luck than judgment. As I resumed a lower-than-normal cruise of 40mph, I noticed that he had reduced his speed dramatically. At no point on the rest of my journey along that road did he catch up.

I imagine he threw his pants away as soon as he reached his destination.

The weather continued to do nothing decisive for the rest of the day. Temperature peaked at two degrees at two in the afternoon, which means the black ice will still be lurking wherever the road is in shadow. Everything will be frozen again on my return journey, and inevitably everybody will want to carry the same speed they do in mid-summer.