Saturday, January 26, 2013

Still Life With Robin: Snow Time to Panic

by Peggy Robin

A mere eight-tenths of an inch of snow yesterday starting before the afternoon rush hour, and we Washingtonians do our usual thing: tie up traffic across the city, denude the store shelves of basic groceries, get into fender benders, curse at each other, and in general, panic.

I am here to defend this behavior. While people from northern climates sneer and say we are wusses who need to learn to deal with snow* (which, admittedly, we get virtually every single year, although in highly variable amounts), I think it's time to face up to the reality: We are just not going to get any better at this. There are reasons that explain why we keep reacting as we do, and here are a few of them:

Collectively, we lack sufficient experience at driving in snow. In this city of term-serving officials, staffers, and career-hoppers, we will always have a high percentage of drivers on the road who are recent transplants to DC from snow-less parts of the world, and they don't stay long enough to develop the skills they need.

Even if you do know how to drive in snow, that won't help you much if you hit a patch of ice. Turn in the direction of the skid --so you are told-- but I'm not sure how this advice will help if the direction of the skid takes you straight into the path of a parked car or a tree. And even your best-executed maneuver can't save you from being hit by someone else coming right at you in a sliding vehicle. So there are going to be accidents, and they are going to tie up traffic.

You might think that points one and two, above, could be ameliorated by urging people to avoid driving. But people do exactly that, and find themselves among the many thousands of extra riders attempting to pack themselves into Metro trains, which then strain to carry the teeming crowds. In a system already plagued by delays and breakdowns due to years of deferred maintenance, throw in some freezing parts, some ice damage, and then an overload of grumpy passengers, and it's no surprise that you so often get the same gridlock underground that you find on the snowy streets above. Either way, you are stuck, stuck, stuck.

Now let's say you decide to stay home as soon as you see a weather forecast of more than a half-inch of anything frozen coming from the skies. Well, that puts us back at the main complaint, that we Washingtonians panic at a few flakes, and shut the whole city down.

Think the solution is for us to get out and walk to wherever we need to go? That is a safe and sensible way to go only if your neighbors and your local merchants have done their bit and cleared their sidewalks of the slippery stuff. It's not worth risking ten weeks in a cast to be sure not to run out of milk, bread, and eggs.

Speaking of runs to the grocery store, the last-minute shopping spree will stay with us, as long as people remember what it's like to be caught in a heavier-than-predicted snowfall, the type keeps the restocking trucks from reaching those few stores that manage to stay open. People with infants really, really don't want to run out of diapers. If you just now realize that your snow shovel is broken, what alternative is there but to hit the nearest hardware store to buy whatever they may still have for sale?

Put all these points together and there's your recipe for a typical snowy day in DC. Every year people propose the same solutions, too: Better city preparedness, better performance by Metro, fines for residents and merchants who don't clear their sidewalks. Things can always be improved, so I don't mean to discourage these sorts of comments. I just feel it's time to acknowledge the underlying reality, that on the whole, the people of the District of Columbia are never going to become comfortable with snow, and will always complain about it. It's a capital tradition. and I, for one, intend to keep it up.


*Here are two of the best comments from readers of the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang blog: 1) In Buffalo or Boston, yesterday's snow wouldn't have been worthy of notice - just an ordinary winter day. But traffic was apparently gridlocked yesterday afternoon! and 2) The Washington region went into headlong retreat Friday before the first flake fell in a snowstorm that threatened to amount to the depth of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. (


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland Park Listserv,, and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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