around the world – part 6 (driving german style)

March 2004:

I have learned some new and interesting facts about the behaviour of cars on snow. Notwithstanding the fact that I live and drive in Canada, the suburban experience in eastern Ontario doesn’t present quite the same opportunities as winter driving on the back country roads of Germany. One early morning Greding was coated with a light covering of snow, maybe 1cm.  By the time I had finished breakfast and climbed in behind the wheel of the car almost all of the snow had melted from the town streets so I adopted my usual driving habit upon departing the cobble-stoned town streets and onto the paved arterial roads – namely drop the hammer and use a turbo charged all wheel drive car the way God intended and Germans understand.  From the town of Greding to the test / meeting site is about 4.5km up to the to of a steep sided, tallish hill.  The roads were bare and so I didn’t take any more precautions than usual, which is when I discovered very quickly the limits of traction.  The exact moment of turn in to the test site at the top of the hill coincided with a change in local conditions whereby not only had the snow not melted, it had created a nice layer of ice underneath.  I simply kept sliding left (fortunately the turn in area is quite large to accommodate large military transporters etc) until while powering out of the skid, one of the wheels regained traction and I simply went in the out route.

Upon reflection, one should always keep the following points in mind when driving in late winter: the car should have snow tires (it did not, rather it was equipped with low profile sport tires); one should take into account the large amount of horsepower on tap and the tendency to want to use it; and that all wheel drive does not necessarily guarantee traction when combined with the previous two considerations.  No harm done, just an increased heart rate for a moment, and then the pleasant realisation that since the snow had melted by that afternoon that the roads were begging to be driven.

Which brings me to my next point. Rural roads although well constructed have no shoulders over here. This means you have the width of your lane and nowhere else to go – Given that the locals like to drive their back roads as fast as possible it means that you do need to keep your eye on the road for subtle changes in direction, camber and deceiving turns. I have taken, on occasion, to driving a lengthier route towards town simply to enjoy the roads. After a week in Germany the first time returning to Canadian roads feels like life is proceeding in slow motion.

Of course, to go along with all of this speed, nature has invented a self regulating mechanism known as the ‘stau’ or translated to English as the mother of all traffic jams. These occur for essentially two reasons, traffic volume related to rush hour and highway construction, or traffic accidents related to stupidity. The former cannot be avoided since Germans are increasingly becoming more North American in their consumption of automobiles, and the latter is infrequent but often catastrophic. It has been said that very few people are injured in German highway accidents, likely true, because they are mostly dead. The speeds at which these accidents often occur is such that despite the best engineering, there isn’t much left of either car or occupants by the time the dust has settled.

The phenomenon is rare, but of such severity when it happens that the Germans have devoted some serious study to deconstructing the common elements of their autobahn accidents. It turns out that the there are three almost universally shared elements: a circumstance of poor weather or sudden appearance of a construction zone, speed inappropriate to the local weather or road conditions at the time, and a target rich environment (ie lots of cars). Apparently most autobahn accidents begin as ‘rear enders’ wherein a fast mover comes up suddenly on slower traffic (probably slower in response the aforementioned weather conditions or construction) and ‘taps’ a slower car from behind which, sends it, (the rear ended car) swerving out of control collecting other cars nearby resulting in a sudden loss of open routes in any lane, which means that more cars pile into the mess regardless of lane they are travelling in. Add a few trucks etc, and you get the idea why these are catastrophic. The German approach is that it isn’t necessarily the speed which is the determining factor, but that the driver failed to apply the proper speed for the condition and as a result they have invested heavily in lengthy and expensive driver education.