In Defense of Seattle Drivers

Here in the Puget Sound Region, we don’t get a lot of snow, so when we do, you hear a lot about it on TV. Newscasters make fools of themselves with their idiotic coverage that will include classic gems of wisdom such as, “If you can see snow on the roadway, it may be slippery, so be careful!” I’m not kidding. That’s an annoyance, but funny in its own way. What’s not so funny, however, is to hear drivers from other, snowier parts of the country bashing Seattle drivers for their apparent lack of “adverse weather conditions” expertise.

My first experience driving in the snow came in Anchorage, Alaska, where I lived for a few years in the late ’70s. Up there, you had to drive in the snow unless, of course, you commuted on X-country skis, risking the dangers of renegade moose and bear encounters. My trial by fire came on a day in early April. I had carpooled to my job all winter but we had recently purchased a car for my use. The weather had warmed up and the roads were largely clear of ice, so I set out to work one morning on my own. That day, it snowed several inches during the day. Heart pounding, I headed home and discovered, hey! it wasn’t so bad. Over the next couple of years, snowy weather never kept me home or even gave me pause if there was somewhere I wanted to go.

So my first experience driving in “Seattle snow” was something of an eye opener. Just for starters, the snow is really slippery. Seriously. While all snow is slippery, in Seattle snow nearly always falls when the temperature is hovering at or slightly above freezing. It may not stick on the roads for hours. Then, when the temperature has finally dropped enough for the snow to stick, it’s falling on a nice bed of black ice. That’s quite different than driving on compact snow, or even compact snow and ice. It’s even better when the snow melts on top of the ice; there’s nothing more relaxing than driving on wet ice.

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The second challenge facing drivers is the hills. The seven hills of Seattle rise steeply from Puget Sound. The steepest streets in Seattle have slopes in the 18 to 21% range, like the one below. Please view this photo in the context of the nice, wet black ice I was just talking about.
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Finally, the city and county agencies are relatively unprepared for snowfall. It would be poor use of government funds to purchase and maintain equipment that would sit idle 360 (+/-) days a year. So streets aren’t plowed and sanded right away. If you think you can do better on one of those 21% grade hills, covered in wet black ice, that hasn’t been sanded, more power to you. But until you’ve tried it, please lay off Seattle drivers.

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17 Comments

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17 responses to “In Defense of Seattle Drivers

  1. JenMcK

    Thank you! I mocked Seattle’s drivers when I lived in Spokane and had no trouble with 14 inches of snow. Then I came to live here and experienced wet, black ice on the fantastic hills of Seattle. It’s ridiculously difficult out there right now. I’m glad I don’t have to drive on it and pity anyone who does.

  2. I have lived in the Puget Sound area since I was very young. I remember the winter of 1949-50 when it did not get above freezing for at least a month. When the bizard hit I was nailing ship lap on the roof of a second story building so We would have a place to live ofour own. I was much togher in those days. Extreme care has always been the key to driving in snow in this country. Drive with caution and do not attempt to go up or down hills with much grade. I drive with two wheel drive and rarely get stuck, but I remain a confirmed Chicken.

  3. Matthew_K

    That’s OK. I live in a part of Ohio they call “the snow belt”. Every time we see the first flakes of winter the TV weather folks go crazy and the drivers act like the were raised on the equator. So stay safe and enjoy the pretty white blanket.

  4. Wedge

    This is an excellent defense. Nevertheless, I won’t cut Seattle drivers any slack in regards to snow driving. I say that for two reasons:

    One, I’ve driven around Seattle through all of the major snow storms of the last 5 years. Over hills. On the highway. Through the unplowed East side. Through downtown Seattle during the worst of snowpocalypse in ’08. Typically I was on the road every day. Often I would drive 30 miles or more in a single direction to visit or pick up friends. Most often I would not have chains or studded tires on my car, a fwd sedan of unimpressive capabilities (most recently a Corolla). Despite this I never got stuck, I never ran into another car, I never drifted into a ditch, etc. Why? Because I was capable of learning how to drive on ice and snow and I was capable of using sound judgment to decide when and where it was safe to drive and when and where it wasn’t. It’s not rocket science.

    Two, it doesn’t matter how difficult it is to drive snowy and icy Seattle roads. The fundamental equation remains the same: if you cannot safely drive given the current conditions, DON’T! If you don’t have a track record of being able to handle icy and snowy roads in your car, STAY HOME!

    There’s no excuse for endangering everyone else on the road, and adding to everyone’s commute times, just because you feel the need to be on the road. Take the bus, get a friend who knows wtf they are doing drive you. Even if you are “stranded” at work and feel the need to get home that’s no excuse. You wouldn’t drive home immediately after pounding a half dozen shots of booze just before quitting time at work would you? If weather conditions make it so that you are no longer capable of driving safely, then don’t drive. It’s as simple as that. Take the inconvenience hit for yourself and safe everyone else a tremendous amount of misery (and risk to personal safety).

  5. Wedge, I grew up in Rochester, NY and I know how to drive in snow and ice. Yesterday, I was nearly stationary on I90 just past exist 18 in Issaquah where the highway banks to the left. My car started sliding straight left. I couldn’t stop it, and I wasn’t even moving at the time. Another driver did precisely the same thing right behind me. This is on a major highway, not some side road hill, and this was even before it got REALLY bad (though thankfully after I was stranded there for a while, a salt and plow truck did finally come by and give me enough traction to get back on the road and get home). This post does a great job of explaining why driving in snow here is NOT the same as driving in it in Rochester, or Ohio, or anywhere else. It took me years to understand the difference as well, and I still do a better job of it than most locals, but I do have more sympathy for folks here than I once did.

  6. Craig

    Chains.

    That is all.

  7. What if every year since modern snowplows became mainstream, the city purchased a small amount? By now they would have had enough plows for the entire city. Maybe I’m biased. I come from southern Maine where every other family has a truck with a plow on it, and everyone pitches in to clear off neighborhood roads. I think I saw ONE pickup truck in Seattle during the storm harnessing a plow. Still . . . these are crisis situations, and after watching the video of the cars on Capitol Hill (http://penumbrae.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/representation-in-winter/), I really just can’t imagine the investment.

    Also, what’s the argument against the use of rock salt in Seattle? Is it because the salt will somehow infect the water bodies in the region?

    • paulag1955

      YES! Isn’t that hilarious? Here’s an article from the Seattle Times about the idiocy of not using salt on the roads in order to protect Puget Sound.

    • KC

      To the salt thing: I don’t know about the city of Seattle, but they do use salt on a lot of the side-roads and the cities around Seattle.

      But the reason I hate the salt is because it’s corrosive on the cars. If you ever buy a car from an area that does use a lot of salt, they often have corrosion damage on them.

  8. Christopher Nutt

    No excuse, honestly. You live in the northwest. It snows here. Put some chains on your car – they cost 80 bucks, take ten minutes to put on, can be stored in the trunk year-round, and keep your car from turning into a $20,000 deadly paperweight that slides into other useless paperweights.

    And if it’s effing snowing outside and there’s ice on the hills – park your damn car cause you’re just going to wreck it. FFS, I cannot believe the LOVE that Seattle body shops must have for the two days of snow we get every year.

  9. Seattlitesincebirth

    I’ve been driving for about 2 1/2 years, but one thing my Parents did was during the snow in 2008 is LET ME DRIVE. Parents teach your kids how to drive in the snow from the start. It lets them know how to drive well in this mess, with or without chains. It really is not hard to drive in, if you compensate for other drivers being stupid.

    And Bryan, most of the “locals” you have sympathy for have migrated from other states who freak out at the thought of snow, because they never got it in their home state. Most of the people who’ve lived here for a long period or time or since birth are not bad at driving the Seattle roads in snow. It’s just the people who migrated from hot climates.

  10. Monkalicious

    While you make a sound argument that does not excuse other drivers in the region with no hills that seem to have a psychological breakdown when it snows.

    Was it 2005 or 2006 when it snowed heavily all of a sudden one day and people were so inept that traffic in Bellevue/Newcastle – STOPPED MOVING? I worked at a retail establishment and opted to sit at work and eat a big dinner while waiting for the roads to clear of most drivers before heading home and during that time I had a very clear view of a moderate number of roads. Cars did not move. People would run out of gas while idling. Their cars would overheat and break down and they would just LEAVE them in the middle of the street further clogging up the roads.

    Around midnight (after being at work for 16 hours) I finally saw the streets open up a bit and drove the 5 miles home. I could have walked and come back but with the crazy people out there I decided to hang out with my coworker friend who had to work late anyways. With the entire day’s accumulation and all of the abandoned cars, plus having to drive on the “Coal Creek dip” it still only took me 15 minutes and I didn’t slide once. This was like the 3rd time in my life I’d driven on snow as well and so I really can’t excuse these people.

    All it takes to navigate the roadways is patience and common sense.

  11. Andrew

    Here’s the thing though. Yes, there is a reason that Seattle drivers aren’t good in the snow. And that’s justifiable. But Seattle drivers are shit when it’s 80 degrees and clear outside, too. I can’t even begin to think about the number of times I’ve been in the left lane stuck behind someone going 52. They’re very passive and passive aggressive.

    • paulag1955

      I don’t know…if you think drivers in the Seattle area are bad, you should visit Alabama to get some perspective on things.

  12. Sherry

    LOL at Andrew. If you think Seattle drivers are bad, try San Fransico, LA, Virginia. ITALY lol. Seattle actually has probably the best drivers I know. And no, I’m not from here so this isn’t a bias statement.

  13. Pingback: Another axe to grind « Lexd's Blog

  14. Mitchel

    All this does is lay out the conditions that Seattle drivers are faced with. Yet, in spite of it, they are still trying to drive on icey roads and hills with ill-equipped cars, showing a severe lack of judgement because they are too stupid to know any better.

    I know how to drive in this weather and I choose to stay home because I know that most Seattlites are completely inept and ill prepared to drive in this snow, but that doesn’t stop them from trying and putting others at risk.

    Which is why they are Stupid Seattle Drivers.

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