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 screwed us both over for over 20 hours.
Monday’s storm dumped over a foot of snow over parts of eastern Virginia, with significant accumulation stretching up into Maryland. This was not good, because as anyone who has lived along that stretch knows, the area’s reaction to hazardous winter weather typically falls into two simultaneous extremes: Panic and recklessness. The panic is because the region is habitually unprepared for snowfall, to the extent where a couple inches of snow in DC is capable of bringing the U.S. government to a strangled standstill. The recklessness comes in when drivers unused to winter conditions inevitably get on the roads regardless and proceed to act like black ice is a speed enhancer.
That is all under normal circumstances. But a spectacular disaster began unfolding on Monday because, as has been widely reported, the state Department of Transportation failed to take basic steps like pretreating 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, this meant thousands of drivers got stranded in standstill traffic beginning Monday morning. Some spent over 24 hours trapped there, running dangerously low on food, drink, and gas as temperatures dipped into the teens — Sen. Kaine told media his commute to DC took some 27 hours. Fortunately, no one died.
The vast majority of the blame has rightfully been directed at VDOT, but I have another grudge to get off my chest: I blame Google for a 20 hour-plus hellhole ride that included a 10-hour stint on I-95. Specifically, Google Maps and Waze.
The voyage started innocuously enough: At around 11:30 a.m. on Monday, my partner and I left a hotel in Virginia Beach, heading to DC. It was stormy out, and we’d heard reports of trouble on the roads further north, but Google Maps gave us a not-too-bad estimate for the 336 km trip up front. According to my partner it did, however, note the possibility of six- to seven-hour delays when put in navigation mode. As snowfall had just about stopped, we made a bad bet that the situation might improve and set off.
(Disclosure: I can’t drive because I let my licence lapse. So I mostly served as a witness and navigation helper as we slowly, ever so slowly edged our way to inexorable doom on I-95.)
Passing through Richmond, we switched to an alternate route that Google Maps suggested might help us bypass the absolute worst of the projected delays on I-95 — though it was still insistent that we hop on there eventually. We stopped at a Chilli’s and downloaded Waze, Google’s other navigation app. We considered taking an alternate path 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 suggested route was already becoming national news, or that state officials were warning people to steer clear. Instead, we relied on the apps’ estimated delays, which fluctuated wildly.
⚠️ Please avoid I-95 in the #Fredericksburg area. I-95 traffic remains stopped for incidents & disabled vehicles. We have more than 50 trucks deployed in the area to clear incidents and reopen lanes, but no reopening time is available.
Learn more: https://t.co/vyoWG4ZBbX pic.twitter.com/pOEApqLrZg
— VDOT (@VaDOT) January 3, 2022
We reached Falmouth near Fredericksburg shortly before nightfall — by which time hundreds of people had been stuck on stretches of I-95 in our path for most of the day. Waze, clearly under the impression it was far more clever than it really was, tried to get us around a blockage by taking some side roads (Maps suggested similar routes). The only problem was that these side roads were unplowed, covered in snow and ice, and quickly being flooded by hundreds of other drivers whose GPSes had clearly come up with the same idea. This is when we got trapped for the first time: We neglected to go down a particularly alarming road suggested by Waze, but while trying to pass a car on another unplowed street, our right tires got stuck in a snowbank. A good Samaritan living nearby helpfully came out with shovels, but the road was packed with other cars getting stuck, including a van we had to help dig out first. By the time we finally got out of there, over two hours had passed.
Shortly before we left, the good Samaritan mentioned that apps must have been to blame for the situation unfolding off his driveway, because it had been quiet all day until an avalanche of cars suddenly arrived.
Waze got us moving north on Route 1 for a while, but yet again advised us to get on I-95. This was a disastrous lapse of judgement, though perhaps inevitable at this point, as Waze had successfully led us into a trap with no other way out. More importantly, its estimated delay time fluctuated as low as a few hours. This was pure bullshit. After getting on I-95 sometime around 7:00 p.m., we were greeted on I-95 by a sheen of black ice and trapped cars stretching forward as far as we could see. Waze took the opportunity to start giving us more honest delay estimates, like three and a half hours to get less than 16 km north to a hotel.
When you’ve been stuck unmoving on black ice for hours, periodically firing up the engine to get the front seats above freezing before turning it back off to save gas, some weird thoughts might enter your mind. Completely illogical, conspiratorial thoughts like, “Hey, maybe getting me stuck here, endlessly refreshing Waze and looking for hotels on Google Maps, was what Google wanted the whole time.” It was at least a change of mental dialogue from prior questions like, “Has Virginia ever heard of goddamn salt” or “Will the state troopers arrest me for peeing on the side of the road?”
With the hindsight of the Washington Post’s timeline of the I-95 fiasco, certain things make more sense. The inconsistent estimates offered up by Waze and Google Maps were likely somewhat related to VDOT’s slow timeline on acknowledging how bad the situation was; it didn’t admit a “complete blockage” of traffic until midnight, after drivers had been trapped for hours. For some reason that evades all logic, I-95 wasn’t officially shut down until three hours after that. Presumably, Google Maps and Waze kept on recommending I-95 as an actionable route until then.
“During unpredictable conditions, our team works as quickly as possible to update routes using details from local authorities, feedback from drivers, and sudden changes to driving trends,” a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo via email. “Earlier this week, we displayed a winter storm warning and stopped routing through I-95 once we verified that it was closed. We encourage everyone to stay alert and attentive, especially when driving in bad weather.”
More importantly, Google Maps and Waze aren’t like plain old paper maps of old. When you use a paper map, the active actor is you. You have to chart the route. No one ever blames an accurate paper map for getting them lost. But by their very design, navigational apps afford users the comfortable illusion of blurring who exactly is in charge. They will always attempt to chart you a route, no matter how ill-advised seeking a route in the first place may be, and they will dutifully march you along it Lemmings-style, if you let it. Outside of truly extreme situations like wildfires or terror attacks, they will never tell you that hey, maybe it’s a better idea not to drive at all.
Of course, we were the ones in control. At any point, we could have just cut our losses and… stopped. Found a hotel or something. Instead, we let some algorithm keep pushing us onwards and onwards, heedless of the consequences until it was too late. That thousands of other people clearly did the same thing is cold comfort.
Anyhow, there’s clearly a lesson to be learned here of some kind. If anyone knows what app I can download to figure that out, let me know.