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Notes from a Cold Country

Ian Sacs on the Finns’ approach to snow on streets:

Very snowy holiday greetings from Finland, everyone! While here visiting my in-laws and friends, I wanted to take a quick moment and share an interesting observation about the way Finns handle the incessant layers of snow that blanket their chilly winter country. It seems that aside from limited access highways and some primary arterials, the Finnish standard for snow treatment is to plow to a reasonable depth, but not worry too much about an inch or two of snow base layer covering streets. Some streets get sand treatment as well, but salt is used very, very sparingly.

The result? Careful, responsible, sensible, slow moving traffic that does not take any chances – even on exit ramps! As we all know, the problem with salting is that it is a relentless maintenance effort and results in tons of unwanted salts polluting our waterways. Also, driver expectations for clean, black streets opens the door for many accidents in weather hovering near freezing where seemingly clear streets are covered with so-called “black ice”, unbeknownst to drivers traveling at merely wet (as opposed to frozen) street speeds. This can be confusing and dangerous. With black streets, the message is unclear and covers too broad a set of conditions to always expect drivers to travel at frozen street speeds. With white, snow covered streets, the message is unquestionably clear: Drive Slow! I have been happily observing on my various trips on buses, trams, and in cars here in Helsinki and other regional cities how this likely unintended side-effect of a more practical and environmentally friendly approach to winter roadway maintenance works so well, and offers a beautiful white street to boot!

As promising as this seems, I am of course skeptical about such a policy stateside. As is the case when we attempt to implement other sensible transportation measures from Europe, we often run into the wall of the polar oppisite legal framework whereby in Europe, the onus is on the individual to take proper care in any enviroment, whereas in the States, it´s always someone else’s fault. Alas!

I wonder if that “base layer” has any effect on gas/oil accumulating on streets, which as work by Harvard’s Daniel Eisenberg has shown, is the real source of increased danger — the first day of precipitation after a dry spell. Any DOT workers just back from plowing care to weigh in on the Finnish approach?

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010 at 8:45 am and is filed under Traffic safety. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

8 Responses to “Notes from a Cold Country”

  1. Bruce Triggs Says:

    Remembering all the “you should have salted!” tumult last winter in Seattle, I wonder how this works on steep hills?

    Finland has hills, are they slippery?

    I understand winter there is one of the reasons they have such wicked-good accordion players. Annual time to practice. http://www.kimmopohjonen.com/index.php

  2. Michelle in MN Says:

    We currently have something similar to Finland’s strategy going on here in the Twin Cites, only it was unintentional: A “base layer” of one to two inches of bumpy, rutted solid ice formed on the streets following our Christmas snowstorm, which gave us 8”-10” of snow followed by a day of rain, followed by temperatures around 10-15F. All the slush froze solid before the plows could scrape it up, and it’s not going anywhere with our current below-zero temps.

    The cities have essentially said to motorists, “You’ll just have to slow down; we can’t get the ice off.” All day long I hear cars spinning their tires on the ice outside my office. Salt doesn’t do any good when it’s this cold.

  3. njkayaker Says:

    Do they use studded tires?

  4. Rich in CO Says:

    I dont’ think Fins use studded tires, but they do use Nokian snow tires on all foru wheels and wouldn’t dream of trying to use the same tires all year long.

    On the northern front range we too have a similar unintended experiment. We had a serious storm (8-12 inches) followed by plowing of most roads and streets, followed by clear skys and high winds which piled snow some places but left most pavement bare – where it piled it then froze in to imovable ice. Then we got less than 2 inches of additional snow (nobody tries to plow so little snow – generally it melts in a day or two – this time the temps plunged and now you can’t tell the packed powder on top of dry pavement, which isn’t very slippery, from powder on ice, which is. We don’t get this every winter so many don’t mount snows and don’t have much experience driving in these conditions. It’s hard to get up enough speed to do much damage, but there are a lot of wrecks. (I didn’t say “accident’s”)

  5. Rich Wilson Says:

    I was once a passenger in a car in a city in Russia where there was quite a bit more than a few inches on the ground. The driver was constantly correcting for minor slides. Everyone on the road was. I was amazed at everyone’s ability to not hit each other. In general, I got the impression that Russians pay a lot more attention when driving, because they have to.

  6. Eileen Says:

    I’m wondering how they handle sidewalks…shovel partway, not at all? Here in DC they clear the major roads (and some side streets) completely, pile all the snow in the crosswalks and curbcuts, neither remove snow from sidewalks nor enforce the laws requiring people to remove snow from the sidewalks. And the result? Pedestrians get to slipslide around and over sheets of ice and icebergs to cross a street where drivers are speeding merrily along in their usual distracted and/or aggressive state.

  7. Sean P. Says:

    This is how it works in Alaska, and people are usually able to go about their daily business without anything terrible happening (yes, studded tires are legal). I stuck studs on a FWD car with 17″ wheels and only managed to trigger my ABS once all winter even though the streets were white from November to April.

    The problem drivers are the people who didn’t seem to get it through their heads that AWD/4WD doesn’t improve stopping ability.

  8. Luigi Zanasi Says:

    No salt is the standard practice in most of Canada’s western provinces as well as in the Yukon where I live. It’s just too cold most of the time for salt to be effective in melting snow and ice. Sand and gravel (often heated) are used to reduce the slipperiness. Winter tires (whose new formulations make them much more sticky on ice), all season and studded tires are all used by different people. One can drive at 100km/h on the Alaska and Klondike highways fairly safely. What the Alaskan didn’t mention is our (Yukoners and Alaskans) permanently cracked windshields.

    BTW, snow tires are now compulsory in Quebec since last year, which resulted in a shortage of snow tires in Canada last fall.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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