Why Can't Southerners Drive In Snow?

Is It Really That Difficult?

Bourne had a bit of snow falling this morning, and it snowed through 10 AM or so. It was good for about 2-3", at least where I am in Sagamore. The schools in Bourne almost but didn't delay or cancel. The roads will be a bit slick, especially if they don't plow them. They may even not plow them, as towns sometimes choose to save Snow Removal funding for more serious events. This is no big deal. 3" or so, maybe 6" on the Islands. We golf in snow like that.

This same storm- granted, with a touch more intensity- just went through the South. Normally warm places like Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina are getting snow, ice, or both. These are regions of the country that generally don't get snow. Being able to build a snowman in Savannah, Georgia is almost as rare as being attacked by an alligator while swimming in Cape Cod Bay.

You can say that the Confederacy had a philosophical mindset about the snowfall only if you remember that Anarchy is a philosophy. Cars are frozen in place on the highways. Children are stranded in schools, or even- in Hotlanta- in a school bus by the roadside. The Governor is urging citizens to remain in their homes. The term "zombie movie" is used in a descriptive manner by CNN. The storm is being called "the Atlanta Snow Jam" by one newspaper, who have "unspeakably horrible commute" in their headlines. Atlanta had about 1000 motor vehicle accidents, and triple digit casualties.

Atlanta had 2.7" of snow.

There is a State Of Emergency in just about any state that once produced cotton in large quantities. It is a justified condition. In both southern/national headlines and my Facebook, I hear tales of 18 hour commutes, highway parking lots, shelters being opened, people missing or unaccounted for, airport delays, scared kids in buses, and general all-around chaos. The last time this region was so worried about getting someone out of a bus, it was Rosa Parks.

People with even a moderate interest in Weather History, or people who were living in Massachusetts in the 1970s, immediately think "Blizzard of '78" when they read the stories coming out of Alabama (the link leads to an article with "Aaaaughh!" in the headline). You hear the same tales of frozen highways, car-camping, old people freezing to death, pregnant women stranded in their homes, and what have you.

Now, the difference between the two regions in this case is that Atlanta has about 2 inches of snow, and Massachusetts got 2 feet of snow in the Blizzard of '78. Two feet and change, actually.

Before I discuss what I think causes these differences, I want it stated early in the article that the Dirty South are no punks. Most of the Civil War was the South slapping the North around, and the North only really won through attrition. If General Armistead charged a little harder at Gettysburg, you could pretty much look at the numbers and be like "a kid from Louisiana can beat two kids from New York, even if you give the Yankees all of the railroads and food." This snow chaos we have in South Carolina and the relative calm in Massachusetts is not a case where, as General Pickett once said, "I think the Yankees may have had something to do with it."

So, why does snow that a housewife on Monument Beach might not even notice cause such chaos in Mississippi?

We're going to focus on vehicles for starters, in a manner which can be concurrently positive, negative, and a perceived positive that actually works out to be a negative once you think on it a bit. When chaos is ensuing and you need to place blame, it is not a bad idea to think of something you may have been mistakenly confident about.

That's a snow plow. You don't need me to tell you that, because- when it snows- you see them all over Bourne. Someone from Louisiana might look at that same plow sort of like how you or I would look at an armadillo. You'd know what it is, but seeing one in action would be a first.

Plows, and their good friends Salt and Sand, are essential when trying to clear snow from a road. Sand and Salt either provide traction or they melt snow/reduce the temperature at which water freezes. The plows do the bull work of removing the piles of snow that build up.

If you like numbers as much as I do.... chew on these.

- Helsinki, which is in Finland, removes about 200,000 truckloads of snow from their streets in a harsh winter.

- Montreal, which gets 5-6 feet of snow per winter, spends $158 million on snow removal for a year.

- Boston, which has 850 miles of roadway, has over 500 "pieces" of snow removal equipment, and I don't think that they count shovels.

- Miami has never had accumulating snow, and has only had flurries a few times.

- Florida and Louisiana have an average annual snowfall of 0.0". Alabama and the Carolinas, which have mountains, get roughly 1.3" of snow per year.

- Massachusetts gets 43" of snow a year, a bit more inland, a bit less near the Cape.

- New York gets 123" of snow a year, less as you near NYC.

- After the "Great Snow of 1717," much of New England was buried under 25 foot drifts.

- The record snowfall in the US from one storm is 189 inches... in California, of all places. Mount Shasta, to be precise.

- Atlanta has roughly 2.7" of snow so far. Boston, which is nowhere near holding the national record, got 27.1" of snow in 24 hours during the Blizzard of '78. The effects on the people in each city were similar.

- South Carolina, which has some mountainous territory, gets .3 days of snowfall a year. That's about 8 hours, generally spread out over a dozen or two mountain weather events.

-  If you add up the average amount of hours it is snowing in Michigan in a year, snowfall fills 44 days.

- Finally.... Bourne, which has 20,000 people in the summer, has enough town plows and subcontractors out on the road that the girl at the Highway Department wouldn't even venture a guess when I called to ask how many plows Bourne had. From what I hear on the news, Atlanta, which has 5 million people in her metropolitan area, has 10 plows. They recently (yesterday) bought 12 plow blades, which they are going to attach to municipal vehicles.

Bourne has all of those plows because they NEED all of those plows. We'd look just as silly on the snowy roads as Alabamians (?) do if we didn't have plows out clearing the streets. Why doesn't Alabama have plows? The last heavy snow in Alabama was 1993's most-likely-aptly-named Storm Of The Century. They'd be fools if they bought and maintained 500 snow plows. The environment doesn't merit it. It's why people in Kansas don't have surfboards.

A bias exists, and it gets worse as you head North. People in Massachusetts laugh at people from Georgia when snow falls. People from New Hampshire laugh at how poorly Massachusetts flat-landers drive in snow. People in Canada laugh at people in New Hampshire. Eskimos laugh at Canadians, and Santa Claus thinks everyone South of him (at last count: all of us) are wussies.

But are there other factors for the Great Atlanta Snow-In?

I spent some time searching for Southern driving apologists on the Internet. You hear a lot of talk about snow tires and chains. While Massachusetts is snowy a little bit, I don't know anyone who uses chains on their tires. I'm sure that there are people in Alberta who don't know anyone who doesn't use chains.

There was also some discussion regarding the relative predominance of dirt roads in the South, with other people pointing out that some people from places like Mobile had never driven on anything but pavement (with the only variation ever being wet pavement). People who have lived in both climates (many northerners move south, and they dilute the "southerners can't drive in snow" argument as they multiply... our own Snowbirds are guilty of this, especially in the winter) say that dirt roads are actually better for snow, but become worse when the snow melts.

You also hear a lot of pickup truck talk. If you don't have a pickup truck in the South, you're kind of like a sissy. They're everywhere in the Confederacy, sort of like grits. Most of the problems lie in relation to the pickup having almost all of her weight in the front. This leads to those spinning crashes you see on The Weather Channel so often during Southern snowfall. Weather watchers call those the "F-360."

You hear NASCAR mentioned a lot, and it is important to the discussion. It comes down to interests vs environment.... nature vs nurture, if you will.

Southerners adore NASCAR. They follow it extensively, and being a fan of NASCAR means that even a dummy is going to pick up a lot of how-a-car-works knowledge. That should lead to how-a-car-performs knowledge, which should lead to a better, more educated driver. Throw in the better intersection behavior you see in Southern Hospitality culture and the Hurricane Belt earned-wisdom sense of "let's just work together and get through this storm," and you'd think the car-loving Southerners would do all right in storms.

All that is true, but it is somewhat offset by the fact that NASCAR is essentially Tailgating and Hostile Passing at 190 mph. "Driving well" in Daytona is "being 6 inches from someone's rear bumper on a turn." A little exchange of paint is almost like a Hello, especially among the veteran NASCAR drivers.

Of course, Southerners don't generally try to drive like their NASCAR heroes when commuting home from their office jobs in Savannah. However, what a Duxbury housewife thinks is tailgating might be different than what someone who roots for Dale Junior thinks tailgating is. When a Yankee with a brain in her head backs off someone on the highway in a snowstorm, the distance might be 100 yards. A serious NASCAR fan might view a proper distance as 20 yards.

The NASCAR expertise of the Southerner is offset by the snowy experience of the Civil War victors, even when the aggressive/possibly insane Boston driving style is figured into the equation. Pocasset people know to pump their brakes, and how to turn into a skid. We develop a sense of how to drive in different rates of snowfall. We look at a balding tire in October and think that we'd better change it soon with more foreboding than someone from Ole Miss does. Crikey, we're even a much better bet to have the little bear paw ice-scraper thing than an Auburn fan would be.

To be fair and honest, I think that, if people who are deep into NASCAR lived in more wintry climates, they would evolve to be better snow drivers than Cape Codders. But they don't, and they aren't.

In fact, looking at relative impact and using my old Civil War logic.... 2.7 inches of snow in a day hits Atlanta like 27.1 inches of snow hits Boston. Therefore, we drive about 10 times better in snow than one of those Roll Tide SOBs. This is a personal guess of mine, and I'm using a rubric that State Farm probably doesn't recognize. If the Civil War were fought by my rubric, the key to beating Bobbie Lee would have been to lure him into Maine.

In closing, I want to say that I have a lot of sympathy for our Red State cousins. They are getting a snow event that they can tell their grandchildren about. It is hitting a region where no one has a puffy coat, and where fireplaces- if they exist at all- are ornamental. The ice will take down power lines, so people used to Hotlanta or Mississippi in the middle of a heat wave will instead have Jack Frost nipping at their noses. As I publish this at noon, there are kids in Georgia who still haven't gotten home from school yesterday.

And there, but for the grace of God, Jimmie Johnson, and the snow plow, goes You.

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