Much of the region's snow pain was self-inflicted

Remember last February's back-to-back blizzards and the dozens of inches of snow they left behind? Although the snow scenes were strikingly beautiful, their effects presented real challenges: how to keep warm, get around and get basic news. Of course, future predictions cannot be made from past experiences, but forewarned is forearmed.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 6:16 PM

I was lucky during last week's snowstorm. When the flakes started falling, I was at the Smithsonian Archives at L'Enfant Plaza. I jumped on the Metro, collected my car at Forest Glen and drove home in 10 minutes. No 13-hour commute for me.

As we know, others weren't so fortunate.

The hellish commute may have been the result of the perfect storm, but did bad drivers get enough of the blame? I've always stuck up for D.C. area drivers in the past, but now I'm not so sure.

Ellen Hoff watched the mess unfold as she tried to drive from Bethesda to Georgetown. Cars were getting mired in snow on East West Highway and Wisconsin Avenue. Other motorists would jump from their vehicles and push them up the incline.

"We'd just about get somebody unstuck when an SUV would pull out of the cross road," Ellen said. That would force the recently freed vehicle to brake. "The person we just pushed out therefore lost all their momentum. Everybody had to get out and start pushing them up again very slowly."

Then there were the drivers who either accidentally or purposely misjudged how much room was in an intersection, blocking the thoroughfare and causing gridlock. It took Ellen 30 minutes to go the three blocks from her office near Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School to the left turn on Wisconsin Avenue.

"The reason was, everybody was trying to come north on Wisconsin and just drove into the intersection," she said. "And of course there wasn't room for all of them."

Wednesday, at least, the old adage seemed true: Washingtonians don't know how to drive in the snow.

"It was self-inflicted pain," Ellen said. "And a lot of it I think was highly avoidable. It was just people being either greedy or stupid about how to drive in the snow. If somebody's trying to get up a hill very slowly, you don't dart in front of them and make them slam on the brakes. It's Basic Winter Driving 101."

Another aspect of Basic Winter Driving 101? Clear the snow from the roof of your car. Though there might be something cute about a car sporting a snow toupee, there's nothing cute about a big chunk of frozen snow coming loose from a speeding vehicle in front of you and exploding across your windshield.

A broom is a useful tool for clearing freshly fallen snow from the roof of your vehicle. Can't reach all the snow? A step-stool is a useful tool for gaining enough height to use your broom. Still can't reach all the snow? Well, maybe you shouldn't have bought such a big vehicle. Do we need signs in showrooms that read: "You must be this tall to purchase this Ford Flex"?

Feeling powerless

Reader Dick Holcomb wrote in with a question: His Bethesda neighborhood weathered last week's storm just fine, electrically speaking. But a day later, their power was off for 24 hours. There was some grousing that Pepco had turned off the juice so it could be diverted to another neighborhood. Dick wondered whether there was any truth to that.

No, said Pepco's Bob Hainey. First of all, trees and limbs were falling well after the snow had stopped. That caused further outages.

But Pepco does sometimes have to turn off perfectly good power.

"There may be temporary outages as we move through the system making repairs," Bob said. "Because you're dealing with high volumes of electricity, in order to make sure workers are not electrocuted, we may have to shut power down in some surrounding areas while they put in a transformer or string wire or make a reconnection."

Finally, the Postal Service sent me a news release with a request: Please clear a path to your mailbox. The release says: "Letter carriers want to deliver the mail but in cases where they cannot get to a mailbox, they must bring the mail back to the post office."

Hurry up, spring.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company