Each time it snows, comment is heard about Washington's weather and the manner in which people react to it.
Most of this comment is made by people who are spending their first or second winter here. Oldtimers know it has all been said before and there is little to be added.
If you're new here, let me give you a brief review of the situation.
In discussing reaction to snow, you can divide our population into three main categories: those who seldom saw snow before they came here; those who are accustomed to much more snow than we get; and those who were born here or have lived here for so long that they are familiar with our type of winter weather.
Those who seldom saw snow before they arrived here are at an obvious disadvantage in coping with it. If it makes you feel superior to poke fun at their ineptness, poke away. However, you'd be better advised to concentrate on anticipating the wrong moves an inept driver is likely to make. If you are really such a superior driver, perhaps you can stay out of his way.
Those who are accustomed to driving on deep, hard-packed snow that remains on the roadway for most of the winter sometimes scoff at the timidity of Washington drivers in the relatively mild weather that prevails here. These tough-guy types should also be watched with care. They seem unaware that Washington's temperatures often vary between just above freezing and just below freezing, which causes thaws and refreezes that add an extra dimension to bad-weather driving.
It should also be kept in mind that familiarity breeds contempt, and as soon as some people become even a little bit familiar with driving in our kind of snow they have a tendency to think, "Hey, this is easy. There's no danger."
This frame of mind is very often the perfect prelude to a crash.
Donald E. Keith, a Virginia highway engineer, put it into colorful but accurate language when he said: "Some people know only two speeds - stop, and full throttle. But you just can't drive that way in snow."
Not if you want to stay out of accidents. Snow requires special equipment, special attention, special driving techniques and special driving skills. If you're not equipped with all of these things, it's better not to drive. Walk if you can, take a bus, take a cab, take a day off, do whatever common sense indicates you ought to do. Any of these choices is better than risking your neck - or, even worse, risking mine.
One final bit of advice to newcomers to our area: Whether you are accustomed to milder winters or colder ones, it is not a good idea to make disparaging comparisons within earshot of oldtime District Liners.
The oldtimers will top your story every time, and you'll have to listen to a lot of fiction about how things used to be in the old days. Everybody remembers the good old days, of course, but not with any great degree of accuracy or uniformity.
The truth is that we have had winters during which one could play golf on all but a very few days, and we have had winters during which so much snow piled up that foofs collapsed. I am 137 years old but even I am not in a position to say that I can detect a trend toward either warmer or colder winters. We have both kinds. We see variations, not trends.
In two regards, however, I do see trends. One is that Washington's drivers appear to be much more sophisticated about winter driving than they were when I first came here, and more of them drive vehicles that are properly equipped to travel in snow. The second trend I see is toward vastly improved snow removal practices in the entire metropolitan area.
As recently as 30 years ago, no local jurisdiction maintained a snow removal program worthy of the name. The most effective technique available to us was prayer. If God sent us a couple of warm days, snow removal went forward at a fratifying pace. If not, the snow remained on the ground. Some years we must have had an awful lot of sinners in our midst. The snow stayed for a long time.
Our Town was filled with streetcars in those days. In the downtown area, the streetcars drew their power not from overhead wires but from a third rail that ran below street level. Because of the buried third rail, the transit company used sand rather than salt on its right-of way; and it also did some sweeping. The District Government watched these activities with benign uninterest for the most part, but occasionally did offer a day's work to 100 or 200 casual laborers who were asked to rearrange a minor amount of the snowfall by hand.
When I used to ask city officials about their snow removal plans, the question seemed to amuse them. "What's the problem?" they'd ask. "There's some warm weather forecast. That'll take care of it faster than we can do it."
Occasionally, as I mentioned, the snow remained on our streets for a long time, and driving sometimes became a rather hairy experience. Because the streetcar tracks were clear of snow and the surrounding terrain was not, driving across streetcar tracks was enough to rattle a motorist's brains. Getting caught in these frozen ruts was even worse.
Picture yourself driving down 14th Street toward Virginia. As you pass F Street and head for Pennsylvania Avenue, you find yourself on a downhill slope. If the snow on it has thawed and frozen a couple of times but hasn't been sanded or salted, you'd be safer driving on a skating rink. Skating rinks are at least level.
If you have managed to get into the streetcar track ruts, lots of luck, kid. When the ruts turn left, you will too, will-nilly. And if there is oncoming traffic northbound on 14th Street, you will soon hear the crash of metal and the tinkle of glass. Involuntary left turns are very often accompanied by those sounds.
These days, one seldom encounters such hazards on roadways in this area, and for that we can thank the vastly improved snow removal programs that all of the local jurisdictions maintain. One good way to show our appreciation for thei rfine work might be to drive with a modicum of common sense while the weather remains bad. There will be time enough to go back to killing each other after the streets are dry again.