Can you drive when there’s snow?

🕔Dec 15, 2009

Quintin and I were both in a learning situation when I visited his home turf in South Africa. Although I am an outdoors person here in northern BC, I suddenly felt completely stupid about what to watch out for in Africa.

For starters, everyone there drives on the wrong side of the road. Knowing that I would only be there for a short time, I never attempted to drive because the likelihood of turning into the wrong lane or making a mistake if a sudden move had to be made was too high. Still, they DID allow me to sit on the driver’s side of the car—but that was only because the steering wheel was on the passenger’s side.

He got a blank look on his face and his eyebrows went up, however, when I said something about changing to my winter tires. “How are winter tires different from ordinary tires?” This made me realize that Quintin had no experience with winter driving. Something that is a completely natural aspect of living here in the North was suddenly entirely new to him. “Doesn’t everyone just stay at home when it snows?”

So I had to explain about the tread on winter tires being deeper and the zigzag being more prominent. I told him that computers have figured out what tread patterns give the best traction in different snow and ice conditions. “What do you mean, ‘different snow and ice conditions?’ Snow is snow, isn’t it?”

Wow. This could take a while. I wouldn’t have to make up any stories or stretch the truth to make this seem dramatic. He’s probably not going to believe half of what I say, and he won’t understand the other half!

“No, not all snow is created equal. Wet snow is very different from hard-packed or light new snow, and ice at -20° has way better traction than ice at zero degrees. Trust me on this, ’kay?”
His eyebrows went up again, but he nodded.

“Nearly everyone back home has two sets of tires for their car. The winter tires are made of a softer rubber for better traction, and because when it gets down to like -20…”

“Minus 20!?? You mean…degrees? I can’t imagine that. Doesn’t your radiator freeze solid?”

It certainly would, I assured him, if we didn’t have antifreeze. Part of the routine of getting the car ready for winter is to ensure that the antifreeze is good for -35 or -40°.

“What?!! I thought you said -20! Not that it matters, since I’ve never felt anything lower than -5. I have no idea what that would be like.”

“Here’s an indicator for you,” I told him. “The freezer in the top of your fridge is usually set at -18°C, but…”

“SHOO!!” he said, “And people live outside when it’s that cold?”

“Yes, but that’s misleading because the meat you put in your freezer isn’t dressed very well, and it’s not actively working or playing. Granted, if a person wrapped himself in paper to sleep at that temperature…well, homeless people have a really difficult time when it’s cold out.”

He was quiet for a bit and I could see him thinking. “Doesn’t a car just freeze up? Like, everything stop working? Why does it even start?”

I smiled as I pictured my answer to this one, and I watched him as I told him that EVERY car where I live has an electric cord hanging out of the grill. “We plug our cars in.”

The blank look on his face told me that that didn’t seem to answer his question. “We have block heaters. It’s a little heating unit built into the engine to warm the oil so it can start.”

“Yeah, right—it gets so cold in Canada that the oil freezes. Now I know you’re inventing stuff!” he accused. I hadn’t actually said the oil would freeze, but if I tried to tell him that it just gets too thick to allow the engine to work…well, why not let him think it freezes?

“How about this one?” I offered. “We can buy an electric blanket for our car battery.” I waited, but he wasn’t going to commit himself to a response. I think he wanted more information. “Honest! Some cars have two electric cords coming out of the grill so they can have their block heater and battery heater going at the same time. When a battery is really cold it doesn’t have much kick, you know.”

“A blanket for your battery! Does it get a pillow, too?”

“No, there aren’t any pillows, but I bet you have a recommended survival kit to carry in your car.”

“You mean a first-aid kit? Or a supply of bottled water and some food?” he asked.

“Kind of like that, but in Canada it’s so a person or family can survive overnight if the car dies, or if you go off into the ditch and have to spend the night in the car. Remember the temperature in your freezer? If you’re in a remote area, you have to just stay with the car until help comes along. Food and water are not the main concern!”

“If you’ve gone into a ditch, how is somebody else going to help you? Wouldn’t you just hope for a ride, or ask them to call a tow truck? Why don’t they fall in the ditch, too?”

“Well, remember I was telling you about snow tires,” I started, “some people have studded…” I stopped, knowing that I’d have to find a way to explain about studs in winter tires. “Studs are like the spikes on the bottom of golf shoes, made of super-hard steel. In some situations studs will provide way more traction, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Like if there’s an accumulation of snow on the road and you happen to get off the beaten tracks, you can get pulled into the ditch.”
“Pulled into the ditch? What, there are snow monsters that pull you into the ditch?” I think he was convinced he had caught me trying to fool him.

“OK…you know how your car gets pulled to the side when you drive through a puddle that’s only on one side of the road? Same thing, and it’s especially bad when the temperature is around zero because we can get ridges of snow that are saturated with water. At highway speed it can be really dangerous.” I didn’t want to over-state it, but there had been many times in the past when I scared myself by hitting wet snow, or when I needed to pass someone when there was a ridge of snow in the centre of the highway.

Then I remembered an oddity. “You know what’s the very worst—and this seems counter-intuitive—is when the weather turns from cold to warm…say +5 and raining.”

Again his eyebrows went up. “That makes no sense. Your roads melt back to pavement and dirt, right?”

“Yes,” I assured him, “but there’s a day or two while the road is still really cold, so we have ice on the surface. It’s not cold ice that has decent traction: this is shiny wet ice that you have difficulty even standing on! On days like this, even people who grew up in the north will have a very hard time. This is when you’ll see people with their tire chains on.”

“Tire chains??” There were those eyebrows again. How does one explain that?