Senator Tim Kaine and I have something in common: We were extremely unwise to drive through the state of Virginia on Monday when the combination of winter storms and the traditional regional practice of doing nothing about them, tricked us both into over 20 hours.
Monday’s storm dumped over a foot of snow over parts of eastern Virginia, with considerable accumulation extending up into Maryland. It was not good, because as everyone who has lived along that stretch knows, the area’s response to dangerous winter weather typically falls into two simultaneous extremes: panic and ruthlessness. The panic is due to the fact that the region is usually unprepared for snowfall, to the extent that a few inches of snow in DC is able to bring the U.S. government to a suffocated standstill. Recklessness comes in when motorists who are not used to winter conditions inevitably get on the roads regardless and continue to behave as if black ice is a speed booster.
It’s all under normal circumstances. But a spectacular disaster began to unfold on Monday because, as has been widely reported, the State Department of Transportation failed to take basic steps such as pre-treatment of roads with salt, and snow removal crews were completely overwhelmed. On I-95, one of the nation’s foremost monuments to the nightmare cult of car ownership, it meant thousands of motorists stranded in stationary traffic from Monday morning. Some spent more than 24 hours trapped there and ran dangerously low on food, drink and gas as temperatures plummeted in their teens – Late. Kaine told the media that his commute to DC took about 27 hours. Fortunately, no one died.
The vast majority of the blame is rightly so been aimed at VDOT, but I have another grudge to get off my chest: I blame Google for a 20-hour hellish trip that included a 10-hour ride on I-95. Specifically, Google Maps and Waze.
The journey started safely enough: Around 11:30 a.m. Monday, my partner and I left a hotel in Virginia Beach on our way to DC. It was stormy outside and we had heard reports of problems on the roads further north, but Google Maps gave us a not too bad estimate for the 209-mile trip ahead. However, according to my partner, it noticed the possibility of six to seven hour delays when put into navigation mode. As snowfall haWhen we had just stopped, we made a bad offer that the situation could get better and got started.
As we passed Richmond, we switched to an alternate route that Google Maps suggested could help us get around the absolute worst of the expected delays on I-95 – even though it was still insistent that we jump there eventually. We stopped at a Chili’s and downloaded Waze, Google’s second navigation app. We were considering taking an alternative route up Route 301, but Google Maps and Waze agreed on one thing: I-95 would definitely be faster, despite confusing delay estimates. In retrospect, this would have been a good time to check the news and see that the status of Google’s proposed route was already becoming national news, or that government officials warned people to steer clear. Instead, we relied on apps’ estimated delays, which fluctuated wildly.
We reached Falmouth near Fredericksburg shortly before nightfall – at which time hundreds of people had been stuck on stretches of I-95 on our way most of the day. Waze, obviously under the impression that it was far smarter than it really was, tried to get us around a blockage by taking some side roads (Map suggested similar routes). The only problem was that these side roads were unploughed, covered in snow and ice and were quickly flooded by hundreds of other motorists whose GPSs had clearly come up with the same idea. It was here we were caught for the first time: We neglected to walk down a particularly alarming road suggested by Waze, but while trying to pass a car on another unploughed street, our right tire got stuck in a snow bank. A Good Samaritan who lived nearby came out helpful with shovels, but the road was filled with other cars stuck, including a van that we had to help dig out first. When we finally got out of there, it had been over two hours.
Shortly before we left, the Good Samaritan mentioned that apps must have been to blame for the situation unfolding next to his driveway, for it had been quiet all day until suddenly an avalanche of cars came.
Waze made us move north on Route 1 for a while, but once again advised us to take I-95. This was a disastrous judgment, though perhaps it was inevitable at this point, as Waze had successfully led us into a trap with no other resort. More importantly, its estimated delay time fluctuated as low as a few hours. This was pure shit. After getting on I-95 sometime around 6 p.m. At 7 p.m., we were greeted on I-95 by a gleam of black ice and jammed cars that stretched out as far as we could see. Waze took the opportunity to start giving us more honest delay estimates, e.g. three and a half hours to get less than 10 miles north to a hotel.
Once stuck without moving on black ice for hours and periodically turning on the engine to get the front seats above freezing before turning it off again to save gas, some strange thoughts may pop up. Completely illogical, conspiratorial thoughts like: “Hey, maybe getting me stuck here, infinitely refreshing Waze and looking for hotels on Google Maps, it was Google wanted all the time. “ It was at least a change of mental dialogue from previous questions like, “Has Virginia ever heard of damn salt” or “Will the state troops arrest me for peeing on the side of the road?”
In hindsight Washington Post timeline of the I-95 failure makes certain things more meaningful. The inconsistent estimates offered by Waze and Google Maps were probably somewhat related to VDOT’s slow timeline to recognize how bad the situation was; it did not admit a “complete blockage” of traffic until midnight after drivers had been trapped for hours. For some reason that avoids all logic, I-95 was not officially shut down until three hours after that. Presumably, Google Maps and Waze continued to recommend I-95 as an action-packed route until then.
“Under unpredictable conditions, our team is working as quickly as possible to update routes using details from local authorities, feedback from drivers and sudden changes in driving trends,” a Google spokesman told Gizmodo via email. “Earlier in the week, we issued a winter storm warning and stopped the route through I-95 after confirming it was closed. We urge everyone to be alert and vigilant, especially when driving in bad weather.”
More importantly, Google Maps and Waze are not like ordinary old paper maps. When you use a paper card, it is the active player you. You need to map the route. No one ever blames an exact paper card for getting them away. But by their very design, navigation apps give users the pleasant illusion of blurring who exactly is in charge. They will always try to map you a route, no matter how bad it is to search for a route in the first place, and they will dutifully march you along it Lemmings-style if you let it. Outside of really extreme situations like forest fires or terrorist attacks, they will never tell you that hey, maybe it’s a better idea not to drive at all.
Of course, it was us who had control. At any point, we could have just reduced our losses and … stopped. Found a hotel or something. Instead, we let some algorithm keep pushing us forward and forward, without taking into account the consequences, until it was too late. That thousands of other people clearly did the same is cold comfort.
In any case, there is definitely a lesson to be learned here of some kind. If anyone knows what app I can download to find out, let me know.