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Opinion: Failing the snow test

'The real insanity is doing nothing.'
"We've tried nothing and I'm all out of ideas!"

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Whether Albert Einstein actually said that is a matter of debate among the sort of historians who debate these things, but what isn’t debatable is the fact that treating large snowfalls as business as usual isn’t working out too well for Whistler or the Sea to Sky region. We love snow, we just don’t seem to know how to handle it in large quantities.

Same goes for the authorities, their contractors, and everybody who piles into their vehicles when the snow starts flying, then acts surprised it took five hours of white-knuckling on sheer ice to get from Squamish to Creekside—like the exact same thing doesn’t happen every single winter.

Our failure to learn the lessons of the past, and the way we continue to make the same mistakes over and over, storm after storm, year after year, is beyond frustrating at this point. It’s like rewatching a horror movie—we know exactly what’s hiding behind the door, but we’re also powerless to stop it. We’ll get another big storm next year and the exact same traffic disasters will happen.

“We’ve tried nothing and I’m all out of ideas!”

That quote is from The Simpsons, although I feel Einstein would have approved.

People often suggest we should do tire checks in Squamish whenever there’s a storm to prevent vehicles getting stuck on hills or sliding into ditches. Unfortunately, that’s just not plausible when you do the math.

For fun, let’s say the RCMP has the resources and assigns three officers to check tires in Squamish. Let’s also be extremely generous and say one officer can check the tires on one vehicle every 30 seconds, or 120 per hour. Three checkers times 120 vehicles each is all of 360 tire checks per hour in total.   

How many vehicles were on the highway after the snow started flying a few weeks ago? Five thousand? Ten thousand? More?

Tire checks aren’t a  reasonable option when there are thousands of vehicles trying to get through every hour. It would take even longer to get here checking tires than to do nothing and let people navigate the chaos.

I’m also not convinced tire checks would have done much to prevent vehicles sliding around. M+S tires weren’t good enough, winter tires can slide when conditions are icy enough, and only studded tires or chains can truly provide solid traction in that kind of snow and ice.

That’s not to say there’s nothing we can do. There have always been options.

For years I’ve been advocating for emergency road closures. When there’s a lot of snow falling, temporarily stop all highway traffic between Whistler and Squamish to give the plows as much time as they need to push snow and properly salt the ice underneath. Plows can’t work effectively when the roads, and sometimes ditches, are packed with vehicles.   

Powder day plow delays (say that five times fast) would be short, an hour at most, and much shorter than the delays that are almost guaranteed to occur when cars, trucks and buses start to lose traction and get stuck.

And if it keeps snowing during the day and conditions deteriorate, then we can just simply close the highway and do it all again.

We also have the ability to change the default tire requirements to match the conditions, as well as dynamic signs and other resources to keep people informed.

The province currently allows M+S (mud and snow) all-season tires on the Sea to Sky highway from October to May, which are generally fine most of the time. But there are occasions—like heavy snowstorms—when actual winter/snow tires should be the minimum requirement to be out on the roads. Call it a “Heavy Snowfall Advisory” and announce it everywhere—weather sites, social media, the radio, and digital message boards, informing drivers winter tires are required, no exceptions, until the advisory is lifted.

History has shown people will still venture out with insufficient tires, but at least having a law in place means we get to fine the people who turn snowy highways into disaster areas because they aren’t driving with the proper tires.

It’s not just the Sea to Sky highway that needs to change the way it operates. I’m sure the people who drive the Coquihalla and in communities with mountain highways experience the same things we do and are tired of the routine.

Speaking of horrible routines, almost every single morning I rely on northbound drivers to see me waiting at the Spring Creek intersection and deliberately slow down so I can make a left turn onto the highway. If they didn’t show me and all of my southbound-turning neighbours the same courtesy there would be no gaps in the traffic at all. We all thank you.

And if you’re one of the people who won’t leave space and honks at anyone trying to turn onto the highway in either direction then I hope you line up for an hour, finally get to the pass scanner and realize you left it back in Vancouver with the rest of your wallet.

Meanwhile, while we wait to see if the province can do something, anything for us, as well as the people who live in Nordic, Brio or other neighbourhoods that don’t have traffic lights, maybe the province could install some road signs saying “please yield to buses and local traffic.” The real insanity is doing nothing.