Now is the winter of our incompetence

The last days of February, and those we’ve seen of March so far, have brought a rare instance of actual weather to the UK. Courtesy of the much-celebrated #BeastFromTheEast, the right-hand coast was the first to receive snow, with the rest of the country being lavishly supplied in the following days. Although Canadians would probably rate the onslaught as ‘a light dusting,’ it’s brought our country to its knees in every way you can possibly imagine.
Public transport ground to a halt pretty quickly. Overhead rail catenery systems were troubled by snow, tumbling temperatures caused faults with points and rolling stock, and flights were cancelled from regional and national airports alike. And the roads? Well, the blocked motorways were inevitable, but it’s the sheer cluelessness of motorists on passable routes that’s rather more troubling.

An errant pedestrian had forced a Jaguar XF to stop, and densely packed snow meant the rear wheel drive machine was struggling to get re-started. As I was on my way down the hill to take photos of the wintry riverbank, I figured I’d try and lend a hand. I soon regretted my eagerness to help.
“It’s alright, I’ve got a ‘snow mode’”.
“Yeah, but it’s clearly not helping, is it?”
Snow mode, which starts the car off gently in second gear, lives up to its name when driving on snow. However, it can’t work miracles when there’s no traction whatsoever. In my Wellington boots, I was applying every ounce of muscle I possibly could, in the hope of forcing the Jaguar forwards at the same time as pushing the rear wheels against the road. Factor in an uphill incline and my efforts were basically futile.
The kindly old chap at the helm, meanwhile, was hopelessly twirling the wheel from left to right – to what end I have no idea. Every time the wheels left the straightahead position my efforts at achieving forwards motion were scrubbed out, and I had to bellow at him to leave the wheel at dead centre. Fortunately, the painfully slow rotation of the rear wheels in ‘snow mode’ eventually ground through the packed ice and found tarmac, and the Jag heaved its way out of the hole – although my wife reckons she saw the same car stuck on a side road a little later on.
It made me wonder whether drivers have become a little over-reliant on electronic assistance. I wouldn’t mind betting that scores of people across the UK shrugged off the “For heaven’s sake, don’t go out in the car” snow warnings, and smugly chanted “it’s alright, I’ve got ‘snow mode’.”

It’s the same story with traction control and multiple super-grippy driver assistance systems. There’s a real risk that drivers will hit the road, confidently wrapped in a magical cloak of invulnerability that their torque vectoring control system offers, and then plough straight on at a corner having forgetten about physics.
In every situation where I’ve bogged a rear-wheel drive car down on snow or wet grass, I’ve had far better success getting moving after switching the traction control off. That’s because the technology is all about trying to maintain traction, not creating it when there isn’t any. It’s not a miracle traction-giver. It’s gonna help you out, for sure – it might well keep you in a straight line when one of your tyres loses its grip on reality, but it can’t do much to help when all four wheels are sliding.
Of course, over-reliance on electrical wizardry isn’t the weakness that has been exposed in British drivers recently – common sense seems to be in short supply, too. Cars are driving around with windscreens partially obscured, where the driver has used the wipers alone to clear the snow. And if they haven’t cleared the windscreen, you can bet they won’t have cleared the headlamps, either. And you can forget about the piled snow that remains on the roof, ready to either slide forwards down the windscreen on heavy braking, or else blow all over the windscreens of following traffic.
This is a combination of laziness and ignorance. The latter can be partially excused if the driver involved has never seen or driven in snow before, but ought still be conquered by common sense. My instinct says that this is most frequently encountered in countries like mine, where snow is infrequent enough to be an attractive novelty as much as it is a dangerous hazard. I’m guessing that those who encounter it more frequently fall into a routine where de-snowing your car is a reflex action like breathing in and out.
But perhaps I’m wrong. How does your country’s natives behave when the snow comes?
(All images Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2018)

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15 responses to “Now is the winter of our incompetence”

  1. mdharrell Avatar

    Regrettably you’d feel right at home in Seattle.

  2. kogashiwa Avatar

    Traction control is my #1 enemy in winter. You’re completely correct about it not helping to move from a state of zero traction to one of some traction. As well, the system in my IS300 is a bit primitive, and more importantly prone to bouts of pearl-clutching whenever the rear wheels spin even a tiny bit. So more than once I’ve found myself vainly attempting to cross a busy highway, traction control having cut power almost to zero and determined to keep it there for no less than half a minute after hitting a tiny ice patch, whilst an eighteen wheeler barrels down the road directly at me at seemingly eight hundred km/h. I’m reasonably sure opposing factions on the same committee were responsible for the inclusion of traction control and side airbags on the IS300.

    1. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      ‘pearl clutching’ just superb phrasing!

      1. outback_ute Avatar

        Agreed. I remember a VT Commodore that would cut power seemingly for a count of ten if tgthe was some water in the gutter when you turned onto a road

  3. Alff Avatar

    No longer an issue for me as it doesn’t snow in KC anymore.

  4. Fuhrman16 Avatar

    Surprisingly horrible. This winter has been a bit odd here in Minnesota, in that we really didn’t get much snow this winter. And the bit we did get melted/blew away in quick order.
    But mother nature made up for that last week by giving us 8 inches over a couple of days. And the drivers were horrid. There were people driving half the speed limit with just a inch of snow, people driving with there lights off (usually in a white car) when the visibility was naught, and people driving straight down the middle of the highway, refusing to move back into their lane even when there’s a car coming the opposite direction.

  5. Maymar Avatar

    Canuckian here, and our drivers are just as flummoxed by winter as yours (or rather, there’s the obvious 5% who manage to heavily drag us all down). Granted, every other Canadian would quickly point out that Toronto also had to once call in the armed forces to help dig out of what was a pretty average winter.
    That said, I still remember a couple years ago, coming up on someone who decided taking out their M3 on summer tires during a snow storm was a sensible idea. They were bested by a minor hill. I was helping push them up very, very slowly when the guy’s boss rolls up behind him in a late model Benz ML. According to the ML’s driver, the problem was a lack of AWD. You know, despite the fact that most of us get by just fine with FWD and a set of tires that aren’t total hockey pucks.

  6. Sjalabais Avatar

    You’d think Norwegians, supposedly “born with ski on their feet”, would ace these conditions. No. You’ll find the same unreasonable learning-resistance you see in MMO’s, parking lots or discussions about why your colleague shouldn’t buy that real nice flat screen with a 845% consumer loan.
    Yesterday, I took my daughter and a friend of hers after-school-skiing the same remote place we often go. But I forgot that this week was winter holiday in Bergen. Lots of city people driving on a usually deserted road that just is ice in winter at super slow speeds…and not using their mirrors. I had to honk twice and abort no less but three passings while next to a car because they didn’t see me and swerved towards the middle of the road. Meanwhile, the rules on tiny roads like this are: Watch your mirror, stop and let eveeyone pass if necessary, no matter if they come towards you or pass you.
    When it comes to traction, my current Honda Stream is the worst car I’ve ever owned. The engine is basically behind the front wheels, so on icy hills, or sometimes just steep gravel sections, I am entirely dependent on maintaining momentum. Sucks, but if you move away from RWD Volvos, you can’t get everything right anymore…

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    1. Smaglik Avatar

      I think the common theme here is that people, in general, are idiots, and can’t see or think past the end of their noses. I live in a mountain town (read hilly) that averages 3 meters of snow a year, and doesn’t use deicer, and every time it snows, there’s multiple jackholes stuck on the hills because their rwd Dodge ram with all seasons and an empty bed somehow couldn’t make it up the incline.
      And when the phonecians show up? Then it gets interesting.

  7. tonyola Avatar

    We have something of a similar problem here in Miami. With 60+ inches of rain per year and frequent summer thunderstorms, you’d think that people know how to drive in the rain, right? Hahahahaha.

    1. outback_ute Avatar

      Yep, with every large storm here there will be some genius that tries to drive through one of the underpasses that always flood.

  8. SlowJoeCrow Avatar

    Portland Oregon gets this sort of stupidity, due to climatic conditions that form lots of ice and population heavy on Californians with no clue about winter driving and Midwesterners who used to know how to drive in winter but forgot. Now that I live in central Oregon where snow and ice are more common this is less of an issue since most of the drivers have snow tires and some experience.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      Why the hell do people try to even get out in conditions as slippery as that? Snow is often navigable if you’re smart about it, but ice doesn’t care how good your driving skills may be.

    2. discontinuuity Avatar

      Something similar happened in Colorado Springs a couple years later. I think the real problem is people who slam on their brakes and lock up all four tires. ABS isn’t going to help if the wheels aren’t turning.

  9. nanoop Avatar

    If this is the winter of your incompetence, beware of the upcoming spring of incompetence. Incompetence blossoming everywhere!