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drive, she said

I love this picture, taken just after last week's big storm. I didn't take it; my niece did. She's too young to drive, but even she recognizes a dangerous idiot driving behind her when she sees one.

Granted it's a limited view, but I'm going to guess anyone who can't be bothered to clear off the windshield hardly gave the rest of the car much consideration.

If you've ever sat inside a snow-covered car, you know the problem isn't just visual. You can't hear anything, either. That noise-cancelled cocooning effect is deadly. When I recently read of a fatal snowmobile collision with a snowplow, I realized that the snowmobiler would never have heard the plow over the sound of his own machine.

But mostly that picture reminded me of something else: we're only as safe as the most foolish driver out there. We have an impact on each other each time we venture out; it's always figurative, it's sometimes literal. But decisions I make behind the wheel have to factor into the ones you make if we're on the road together.

That recent storm is as good an example as any. Once it broke, I headed into Hamilton to tape a TV segment on winter driving. I was playing it by ear as to whether or not I should go in, because I knew if I misjudged and took a trip I should have aborted, the jokes would just write themselves. We'd all stayed put during the worst of it, because the best way to not get killed on the road is to not leave your house.

Traffic itself was light, but it rapidly became apparent my careful speed, cautious approaches and winter tires meant little if the car beside me had contrary ideas.

Several times, I witnessed what must have been the signature move of the day: a car launching from a side street to get some momentum through deep snow. This usually involved ignoring a stop sign or a red light, but once on the main roadway, the slippery conditions would grab that momentum and spin the car like a figure skater. It would have been more interesting to watch if anyone, including the driver, knew where that car was going to end up.

I don't believe anyone gets behind the wheel planning on causing or being involved in a collision. An excellent driver can end up on the receiving end of one who is terrible. In theory, you usually have several options in the event you're about to get hit; in practice, everything happens in a split-section and that decision often involves oncoming traffic, the vehicles adjacent to you and pedestrians.

In a perfect world, everyone has been monitoring all of those things continually; in a perfect world, drivers use their full concentration. When I see a driver like the one in this photo, I realize not only is he not monitoring any of those things, he couldn't if he wanted to. His laziness doesn't just compromise himself; it puts everyone around him at risk.

Sometimes, our fate is in the hands of strangers. Nearly 30 years ago, I was exiting a plaza when my car caught some ice. I was barely moving, but the front wheels just started sliding. A van was turning into the parking lot, paying more attention to finding a gap in traffic to make her left. As she started to turn in, my car headed right for her. As my eyes caught hers, we both realized she held the power, and what she did in the next second or two would decide this. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion.

In one fluid motion, she glanced in her rear-view and expertly backed up. My car came to rest at the edge of the parking lot, right where she'd been. She'd reacted so smoothly, so quickly and I can still see her registering everything. She had choices, those choices we all think we'll have, but making the right one takes a cool head.

Part of being a respectful driver is being a good steward of what you leave in your wake. It's not enough to proudly declare you're never had a crash if you've caused them for others. There have been times I've been given the gift of patience, and times I've done so myself. I try to be the aware, predictable driver I want to share the road with, all the while remembering that woman who held all the cards as I slid on the ice.