Why can't Marylanders drive in the snow?
It seems that either people suffer panic attacks at the first sign of snow and ice, or they are so utterly oblivious to the peril that they invite a collision.
Let's face it. As a group, we're snow-impaired.
"It amazes me to watch people on the Beltway drive in the snow or rain," said Officer Charles W. Beeler of the Baltimore County Police Department's traffic unit. "They have no concept of what they're doing."
Saturday night's traffic debacles did little to offset that reputation. Starting about 9 p.m., freezing rain and snow turned parts of the state slicker than a tree frog in a tub of 10W-40.
During this veritable Nightmare After Christmas, there were multiple car accidents, stranded vehicles, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and untold numbers of minor mishaps. All that from just an inch or two of snow.
"Sometimes it's really sad to see a nice car all mangled up," said Bud Monroe, owner of Brooklyn Service Center, which dispatched six tow trucks during the storm. "The roads became so slippery so fast, people didn't seem to know it was coming."
Traffic experts say the real tragedy is that the majority of the weekend's accidents could have been avoided. Sure, the weather was bad, they said, but if motorists had followed some common sense advice, they might have avoided problems.
First and foremost is to just pay attention to driving conditions.
Got that? Pay attention to driving conditions.
That means slowing down when there is snow and ice on the ground, go easy on braking and accelerating. Give yourself enough stopping distance so that if you begin the slide, you have enough room to regain control of your car.
"Speed limits are designed as a maximum speed in ideal conditions," said Sgt. Glenn A. Hansen, supervisor of traffic enforcement for the Howard County Police Department. "People panic and lock their brakes and slide. To compensate for that, they should allow more stopping distance between themselves and other cars."
Sergeant Hansen said many of the best driving tips for inclement weather are often just a matter of common sense. Drivers need to anticipate how conditions vary, how overpasses freeze before roads, for instance.
"Because the road you're driving isn't icy now doesn't mean you might not find an area where it is," he said.
The fact that Maryland gets less wintry weather than northern states may be one reason it seems more dangerous to drive here, experts speculate. Driving in snow remains a novel experience.
Only two pages in the 84-page Maryland Drivers Handbook are devoted to winter driving.
This lack of experience typically shows up in skid reaction, said Alvin M. Marquess, the State Highway Administration's chief of statewide traffic operations. When skidding, motorists should do two things that seem unnatural to the novice: Take the foot off the brake and steer into the skid.
"That sounds funny when you read it on paper," said Mr. Marquess. "Sometimes, you need to do the opposite of what common sense might be telling you."
Overly aggressive drivers remain the terror of winter traffic. If someone is tailgating, it's best to get out of the way or even pull over to let the offending driver pass. Better to be delayed than risk the accident.
Alan L. Price, a State Highway Administration snowplow supervisor, said he watched a four-wheel drive truck pass his snowplow on the shoulder during a storm. A few miles later, he found the truck overturned along the road.
"I've watched people cut in between snowplows to get by," said Mr. Price. "I guess people are just in a hurry."
The American Automobile Association recommends that safe winter driving should start before winter even begins. Motorists should give their car a complete winter checkup with particular attention to the electrical system, the brakes, tires, exhaust, heating system, and windshield wipers.
Yesterday, the Maryland Division of AAA Mid-Atlantic was flooded with a record number of phone calls from motorists with disabled cars. A spokesman said the club received about 1,500 calls compared with the normal 800 to 900. Even during the peak of the blizzard last March, AAA received just 1,100 a day.
The sudden cold weather and the long holiday weekend apparently wreaked havoc on car batteries, a AAA spokesman said.
"People have plenty of advance warning, but they never seem to get their cars ready in time," said William F. Zorzi Sr. of AAA.
The best advice of all may be to stay home. Whether you have four-wheel drive or snow tires, it's hard to drive safely on ice, a point not lost on veterans of Saturday's storm.
10 TIPS ON WINTER DRIVING
* Don't drive at all. When a snow emergency is declared, staying off the road is the safest course of action.
* Check your car's vital features including tires, lights, defroster, battery and wipers. Clear all snow and ice from windows and mirrors. Keep a bag of sand or kitty litter in the trunk.
* Wear a seat belt and have passengers do the same.
* Start slow and drive that way. Begin braking long before you reach an intersection.
* Avoid sudden changes in speed or direction.
* If the car skids, don't panic and slam on the brakes. Take your foot off the gas pedal and steer in the direction of the skid. If the rear wheels are going to the right, turn the front wheels to the right.
* Keep a safe distance between yourself and others on the road. Focus your attention as far ahead as possible.
* Don't pump the brakes, especially if you have an anti-lock braking system. Gradual pressure on the brake is the best way to slow. Keep your heel on the floor so that your toes are controlling the pressure and not your thigh muscles.
* Watch out for the other guy. Just because the light turned green doesn't mean it's safe to proceed if cars going the opposite way can't stop.
* If you're forced to abandon your car, move it as far off the road as possible and lift the hood. A scarf hanging from the window or radio antenna can serve as a distress signal.