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April 19-25, 2006

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Rainy days

Car Culture

Rainy Days

By Novella Carpenter


MANY OF YOU, my dear readers, probably don't know this, but I actually penned a pseudo-self-help book about seasonal affective disorder, called Don't Jump. It was written during a particularly horrid winter of rain-loathing and overeating when I lived in Seattle. Shortly after publication, I moved to California in hopes of escaping that wet, soggy feeling. Fat chance.

It is back with a vengeance, only this time the rain is affecting not just my personal life (what else would explain my eating patterns: brownie, cookie, piece of pie, another brownie), it has also changed how I view Californians, especially in terms of driving.

The Golden State kids, you see, react to the rain differently than their Northwest counterparts. Instead of strapping on rubber boots and encasing bodies with Gortex, people here bitch about how they have to park in the street because of sodden, muddy driveways. Californians confess to being confused while driving in rain. A surfer friend complained that he can't get to his beach because the rain washed out the road. Cry me a river.

First of all, no one here knows how to drive in the rain. I, on the other hand, drove home recently with no windshield wipers during a torrential outburst without incident. How did I do this? I slowed down, watched the tail lights of the folks in front of me and, most importantly, kept eagle eyes out for pedestrians. Every time it rains around here, pedestrians somehow become invisible. But imagine how they feel, out there in the rain, getting drenched, and you're in your comfy, dry car. So slow down and let them use the crosswalks.

I've also noticed that Californians need to replace their windshield wipers more often than the supple, web-footed Northwesterner. Every six months, people. Also, stop pounding the brakes. Use the gas pedal to decide how fast to go. If you brake fast in the rain, you'll skid right into that Lexus up over yonder.

A more serious problem is the potential for a mudslide or landslide to engulf you and your car while driving. A slide needn't be all bad, though. A friend of mine in Oregon came upon a landslide blocking the road. Trees were sprawled all over the roadway. She pulled over and wondered what to do, until a pair of 4x4 driving guys arrived. "A landslide is an excuse to party in Oregon," she reported. They cracked out the chain saws and beers and went to work. One of them built a fire. After three hours of "work," the roadway was clear enough, and she went on her way.

But here in the disaster state, when it rains, we worry—for good reason. The ground isn't used to getting so much moisture. According to the Disaster Information Center, a slide develops when "water rapidly accumulates in the ground, during heavy rainfall, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud. They flow rapidly, striking with little or no warning at avalanche speeds."

In the spirit of worst-case-scenario thinking, here's what to do if you might be driving around near a slide zone. First of all, note changes in the landscape. The Red Cross warns that one should "be especially alert when driving. Embankments along roadsides are particularly susceptible to landslides. Watch the road for collapsed pavement, mud, fallen rocks and other indications of possible debris flows."

Storm water trickling off of slopes may also signal trouble. Take heed. Also, note whether trees are progressively leaning, tilting or moving. If so, clear out! Remember that a faint rumbling sound that increases in volume might signal a landslide. Obviously, if you're in your car and notice warning signs, get away from the area as fast as possible. If a mudslide hits, remain in the car. Curl into a tight ball and protect your head if escape isn't possible. Wear your seatbelt. It's going to be a crazy ride.

Sorry to introduce yet another thing to worry about. The advice I gave people so many years ago still actually holds: Why venture out into the rain when you've got a bottle of Scotch and half a chocolate cake to devour in bed?


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Novella Carpenter is a women not only obsessed with cars, but with protecting the environment. Her weekly column balances these two polar-opposite loves while providing handy tips and car-related news items.