Snow's tricky, even without the mad drivers

The problem is not just the weather: in bad conditions we become a nation of insane motorists. This week proved no exception. By Penny Jackson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
As the first flake of snow begins to settle, there are drivers who just itch to get on to a deserted side road to practise their winter manoeuvres. The trouble is, others who imagine themselves to be on the last stage of the RAC rally head straight for the motorway.

This week's freezing weather has been no exception. In Kent, where sections of major roads were closed altogether at times, there was the annual crop of mad motorists, according to a police spokesman. "Two nights ago," he said, "we had to shut part of the M20. For at least a mile on a six-lane motorway, the road was sheet ice and it was snowing. All the low-speed signs displayed a limit of 20mph, so everyone must have known conditions were appalling. Despite that, I witnessed drivers doing 50 or 60mph. It was so slippery that you could not even stand on the road without holding on to the car, yet these people thought they knew better.

"All we could do was cross our fingers. But the chances were they either ended up over a bank and in a ditch, or even worse, collided with other cars.

"Now we have been told to expect freezing fog, which rolls along in banks - one moment there is clear visibility, the next a wall of fog. This could be even more hazardous than ice. I cannot stress how important it is for drivers to be prepared," he added.

But even experienced drivers were unprepared for the horrors of the M25 a few days ago. George Edwards, who has clocked up thousands of miles in wintry conditions, found himself sliding into a never-ending queue. "It took me five hours to go 20 miles. I have never seen anything like it. As soon as you touched the brake or accelerator, you slid sideways. I was driving an automatic, which didn't help, and all I could do was put the car into neutral and follow the shape of the ice. Despite the horrendous conditions, an occasional dope would cut inside along the hard shoulder going at about 30mph. If my wife had been driving on her own, she would have been very frightened."

And as Surrey police discovered, some people on their own did find it all too much. During the Tuesday's chaos, they found a woman on the hard shoulder awaiting the AA. Her crisis? The windscreen wipers were not working. She was politely moved on.

Another driver showed touching faith in the invincibility of the rescue services. When police discovered her car on the hard shoulder, they found a note for the RAC stuck to the windscreen. "Waited half an hour so have gone on foot to the Clacketts service area." Some six hours later, she was still waiting.

But the officer who met the driver of an automatic stalled in the middle lane during Tuesday night will be dining out on it for a while. He came across her while she was waiting for the rescue services. "The engine won't start," she cried in despair. "Try putting it in neutral before turning on the engine," might have been the polite answer she received.

But not even the AA have found it plain sailing. "Our patrols in the South-east were rescuing people before getting stuck in the snow themselves," said a spokeswoman. On Wednesday, in the South-east alone, the AA had had 6,000 calls by 11am; usually, they get about 13,000 a day nationally.

She said patrols had spotted a recurring hazard - the port-hole driver. "People scrape a little bit of their windscreen clear and peer through the tiny gap. They wonder why they didn't spot the car coming up on the right."

Certainly, some people do seem to leap into their cars without thinking about snow piled up on top. On a school run, I spotted a man trying to clean a back-door window while driving. Another stopped suddenly, sending us behind into a skid, because the snow on his roof descended over his windscreen like an all-obscuring blanket.

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