Driving on snow can give a case of shivers

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Tuesday, December 2, 2003 9:00pm
  • Local News

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I lied when my father called last week.

He wanted to tell me not to drive over Snoqualmie Pass. His house is on an unplowed street in Spokane, more than a foot of snow had fallen, and he’d been watching the weather reports.

"We can have Thanksgiving in April," he said.

"Dad, I’m not going to worry about this," I lied.

Oh, but I did worry. I scolded myself for a string of dumb decisions. Why didn’t I make plane or train reservations? How come I bought a front-wheel-drive station wagon? I could have picked a hulky four-wheel-drive model.

I lost sleep. I watched Northwest Cable News. You know you’re losing your grip when you go to the dentist and ask him what to do about traction devices. (He advised against the four studded snow tires I was considering.)

A day from departure, I settled on a set of chains and a lesson in putting them on at a Les Schwab tire store in Everett. In theory, I know what I’m doing with those chains. In a pinch, sure.

Luckily, we were spared that sort of pinch. All the way to Spokane and back, we saw tons of snow where it’s supposed to be — on the roadsides, not on the roads. I’m back on the west side with renewed appreciation for a 40s-and-raining forecast.

But winter isn’t here yet, and already we’ve seen snow in low places. The dentist’s advice wasn’t half bad, but I decided to seek more expertise.

"Four-wheel-drives are not invincible," said trooper Lance Ramsay, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol.

"People feel if they have an all-wheel-drive or a four-wheel-drive, they can go anywhere. They have a little more traction, but on ice they’re going to skid," Ramsay said.

That sense of invincibility causes accidents. Over Thanksgiving week, the State Patrol saw more crashes on Stevens Pass involving four-wheel-drive vehicles than other vehicles, Ramsay said.

"Speed is the big thing," he said. "We always say, ‘slow down, slow down.’ But we still have people going 60 miles an hour on compact snow and ice."

As for tires, Ramsay said troopers don’t use studs. Patrol cars have all-season mud-and-snow tires.

"We’re getting around on the same tires as everybody else," Ramsay said. "When I worked the pass, I’d get up and down the mountain a couple of times a day for a couple of years without ever crashing my car. And only a couple times did I have to chain up."

Studded tires actually destroy the roadway.

"When we do get snow or ice, it may stick around a couple of hours or at the longest a day or two. Yet people run with studded tires until April 1," he said.

If the state Transportation Commission has its way, studded tires won’t be allowed in Washington. The commission voted in October to ban studs and will ask the Legislature to pass a law next year. Officials say studded tires cause $10 million in damage to state highways each year.

Aaron Knutz, assistant manager with Les Schwab Tire Centers in Marysville, said the company sees the trend away from studs and is responding with tire treads that include deep lateral cuts.

In extreme conditions, the State Patrol requires all vehicles to chain up. Ramsay said cable chains are recommended for some newer all-wheel-drive vehicles.

"I’ve never had to chain up down here," Ramsay said. "If you have a good set of mud-and-snow tires and you drive cautiously, you can pretty much get anywhere. If need be, carry cables or chains."

What about that rap against Western Washington drivers, that we can’t drive in snow?

Knutz thinks there’s something to the excuse that our snow is different. "Snow here is so wet. With freezing weather, that stuff is slick," he said. "In Eastern Washington or central Oregon, it’s so dry the road doesn’t get slick unless there’s black ice."

Ramsay believes the difference is in the driving.

"On the east side, where they have snow several months at a time, they’re accustomed to driving slower," Ramsay said. "It’s not that we don’t know how to drive in it. People don’t want to respect the snow.

"People are going too fast, that’s all there is to it."

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or

muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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