Italy has a very confusing design of road rules for the snow season. This weekend, we experienced how this can turn tough traffic into one monster of a traffic jam. It was certainly the worst traffic jam I always ended up in. Hopefully it will keep this position for a long time.
We took ten hours for our ride from Bozen to Milan. That’s a distance of not even 300km. On a normal day, this will take three hours. When there’s busy traffic, three-and-a-half. Under really bad conditions this can go up to four. (It’s what I had experienced on Thursday evening when I drove in the opposite direction.) But yesterday, after four hours we had not even covered a third of the distance. We only had started to realize that it would turn into an endless nightmare.
Google’s traffic jam algorithm didn’t work anymore. While often rather accurate, at any point yesterday, it gave us way too optimistic forecasts. In hind-sight, I should have put the girl in a train.
So, what happened?
Until a week ago, this Italian winter was too warm and too dry. Then it was not too warm anymore. Now it’s also not dry anymore. Lombardy’s lakes maintain a huge water deficit (Lago Maggiore is at its historic low). One bit of rain and snow won’t change it. However, yesterday was one of the rare days when it snowed substantially and for a long time in the low altitude of the Po valley, and when the snow covered most of the Northern part of Italy. Driving in snow means: more distance, less speed – less capacity on the highway. However, capacity was a huge issue.
This past weekend included a public holiday on Friday. Italians celebrate the Immaculate Conception (when Mary was conceived by her parents) – and many other festivities related to Mary, but few related to Jesus. So late in the year, it’s the perfect occasion for an early skiing break, particularly in a year where quite some snow has already fallen in higher areas. Plus, there are Christmas markets in Trentino and South Tyrol; it’s one of the busiest weekends there all year around. We thought we departed early when we left Bozen at 14:00. We were too late already and got caught in the first accident-based traffic jam too close to Bozen, and then those departing later just joined us in being stuck.
I had tried to circumvent the problem with country side roads between Bozen and Trento (and that did save us 30 minutes), but did not think about the more radical solution: to go via Lake Garda, which is not a major travel destination at this time of the year. Then, avoiding highways all the way down to Brescia, I might have been able to cut it down to five hours, maybe six. Still a long ride, but… still not ten.
Much traffic and snow alone are already a difficult combination. How much impact snow can have, however, depends much on how prepared drivers are. I had rented a station wagon from Europcar. As usually in Italy, they come equipped with summer tires also in winter, but you’ll get a set of snow chains in addition. I usually accept this because I know I’ll ride on dry roads and won’t need the chains. But chains are useless on a car with summer tires.
You can’t use chains on wet roads or on ice. You can use them on snow, but if you put chains on the two drive wheels, but not on the two other wheels… have fun controlling it.
Winter tires are a necessity. They should be in the interest of car rental companies. I advise any car rental CEO to just watch the following video.
I also urge Italian politicians to do the same. The situation is messed up. In some areas, winter tires are prescribed. In other areas, they are prescribed under specific weather conditions. In all areas, winter tires can be replaced with snow chains.
Yes, it doesn’t always snow in Italy, but it does rain in winter. On wet roads in cold conditions, summer tires area already a safety hazard. They experience less response to steering and worse breaking performance. You’ll more likely to bump into something, but if you’re driving winter tires, you’re also more likely to have someone in summer tires to bump into you because he can’t break as fast as you can.
People spend thousands on their cars. A few hundreds for a set of winter tires should be a must. And if the country cannot put it in a law to force ordinary people (who, most often, use winter tires voluntarily anyways), it should at least recognize that it cannot leave this freedom to professional organizations that deal with cars: buses, trucks, and rental cars with summer tires are nothing but dangerous.
We exchanged our rental car with the car of the girl’s father. His was equipped with winter tires. On Friday, when we first got caught in snow while crossing a high-altitude pass on the way back to Bozen from a Spa, I was glad to have the extra grip. At low speed and despite a four-wheel drive, I still drifted slightly through two turns on the downhill. So much about that.