We are now well into the winter driving season here in Vermont — or what was the winter driving season before we put winter into the dryer and shrunk it. To wit: Annual temperatures across the northeast have risen two degrees since 1970, according to Congress’s Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, while winter temperatures have climbed close to four degrees. South Lincoln, a few miles from my corner of this planet, just had its warmest November on record, coming in at a monthly average of nearly 41 degrees. Eventually, the winter driving season in Vermont may be the Presidents’ Day Weekend.
Fortunately, we’re not there yet. There is still plenty of snow, sleet, slush, and black ice before us.
I remember the first time I tried navigating the Lincoln River Road in the snow. I was driving a 1983 Dodge Colt hatchback. I bought it used and it was the first car I ever owned. I loved it. I drove it even after the passenger doors refused to open from the outside and I had to enter the car through the hatchback and climb into the front seat from the rear. I only bought a new car when my boss at the ad agency where I worked saw me climbing through the hatchback in my gray-pinstripe suit and hinted that I might be sending the wrong message to clients.
For those of you who have never driven the Lincoln River Road, imagine three and a half miles of wooded, two-lane switchbacks linking Vermont 116 and the village center. The road parallels the New Haven River (hence the name), climbing up into the town, the asphalt aligned almost perfectly with the aqua. The first time I drove it in snow I was on my way to Burlington and so I was heading downhill. A big yellow school bus, empty except for the driver, was heading uphill. I was rounding a curve and suddenly my little blue Colt and that big yellow bus were doing the lambada together and creating a patchwork blue and yellow Swedish flag on the sides of both vehicles. The Colt did no damage to the bus and the bus merely creased the driver’s side of the Colt. But it happened fast. One minute I was listening to Morning Edition, and the next thing I knew I was banging against the side of a bus.
For many of us, the winter driving season arrived this year on the day before Thanksgiving. I was driving from Lincoln to Albany, N.Y., that morning to pick up my daughter at the train station, and I counted six cars and pickup trucks off the road, most between Cornwall and Whitehall, N.Y. Here are some of the things I’ve learned, in some cases the hard way, about driving in snow.
* Slow down and don’t use cruise control. Give the car ahead of you plenty of space. If there is oncoming traffic, note the speed of those vehicles: It will give you a sense of the imminent road conditions. Also, if you see the Kia Party Rock Gerbils behind the wheel, give them a really wide berth. Those dudes are just way too cool for school.
* Don’t text when you’re braking. Or accelerating. If you’re even tempted to text ever when you’re behind the wheel, put your phone in the trunk.
* Make sure your headlights are on and you have first-rate wiper fluid under the hood. Make sure you are nowhere near any vehicle with Florida plates. I lived in Florida, and Floridians handle snow as well as they do elections.
And the safest thing you can do is this: Stay home.
But when you can’t? Take it slow. You don’t want to tango with a school bus … even if you have a super cool car like a 1983 Dodge Colt.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on December 11, 2011. His new book, “The Night Strangers,” was published in October.)