Saturday, 4 February 2012

The Moose Test

It’s been very cold and very snowy in Helsinki this week. Good thing that I am a fully-fledged winter rally driver then!

OK, maybe I am not quite of rally-driver standard, but I would have you know that I have been trained to drive in winter conditions! This might not seem a big deal to the Finnish readers of this blog, but let me tell you that, from a Franco-English perspective, this puts me in an elite category of drivers!

Admittedly, when I say trained…

Well, back in December, I had a one hour lesson on a track in the Helsinki suburb of Vantaa that simulated winter conditions. And great fun it was too!

Obviously, the main difference between driving condition in Finland and those in the UK (where I live) is the snow and ice. In the UK, when it snows, the official recommendation is “don’t get into your car”. Since snow typically melts within 24 hours, not using one’s car in snowy conditions is not really a big deal. In Finland, where snow is around for months, things are obviously different...

So the first part of my lesson was all about learning how to control a car in slippery conditions –  skids, spins and all that cool Top Gear stuff.

But then, the lesson got a bit surreal for me when the instructor told me: “Imagine there is a moose over there...” Now that’s something no driving instructor ever said to me when I was learning to drive in my late teens in the UK. Dealing with imaginary cars, pedestrians or even tractors, yes, I’ve done that. But imaginary moose?

The thing is moose are a hazard on Finnish roads. Reindeer are also a hazard, but those are easily dealt with: just roll down the window and bark at them. No really, I’ve seen it done! Reindeer are apparently afraid of dogs, and even the worse human impression of a dog’s bark is good enough to convince those stupid animals to get out of the way. Besides, there are no reindeer in the south of Finland where Helsinki is located.

Moose do live in southern Finland however, and are a different beast altogether. Firstly, they are not afraid of human-dogs. Secondly, they are huge, heavy and fast animals that can appear onto a road out of nowhere. Thirdly, they have long spindly legs, so if you hit one with a car, the bulk of the beast will hit the bonnet/hood of the car, and then go flying through the windscreen. So while the moose will probably not come out of the collision alive, the driver and the passengers in the car might not be in too good a condition either.

Car hit by a moose (is it moose hit by a car?)

Basically, you want to avoid hitting a moose at all costs, and therefore the official instructions are to drive around it (ideally from behind, away from the moose's intended path). Kind of makes sense, no?

So that’s why I found myself driving at comparatively high speed down a straight bit of the track then swerving rapidly around an imaginary moose, and before getting the car back into the correct trajectory.

This is not quite as simple as one would imagine, especially in winter conditions – as car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz learnt at its cost. In 1997, the company introduced a revolutionary new car called the A-class, to rave reviews. Then, a Swedish journalist evaluating the car carried out the infamous “moose test”, and found that the new car simply rolled over during the swerving manoeuver. This was such a big PR disaster that it has since become the subject of a Harvard Business Review case study!

Anyhow, I am pleased to report that I passed the moose test with flying colours, and as a result am fully equipped for the Finnish winter, if not quite for rally driving.


  1. Nice work! This is my second winter in Finland, but until two weeks ago I had never driven a car in snowy conditions. I need to do this course that you mentioned! Were you able to have an English-speaking instructor, or should I aim to improve my Finnish before booking my own Winter Rally Driving lesson?

    1. My instructor spoke English, though he did have a crib-sheet with key driving words and expressions. In particular, he used that sheet to describe me as a "defensive driver", which after some explanation I understood to mean a cautious driver, which of course is a compliment in Finland.

    2. Actually among male Finnish drivers it wouldn't be considered a compliment, cautiuos=female, defensive=grannylike

    3. Damn! And there was I, proud as a peacock to have been described as "defensive". ;-)

  2. I'm pretty used to driving in snowy conditions, and, worse than that, icy conditions, and I've had to swerve to avoid hitting a few deer (not moose, thankfully!) in my day. But before you think I'm bragging, I am decidedly deficient in winter-driving-sisu, and I am perpetually stressed out when I have to do it. And that's why I'd rather walk around town in -25 degree weather than drive in it!

    Congratulations on your new driving skills. That lesson does sound like it was a lot of fun!

  3. That's a car school standard lesson. Mandatory, too, I believe.

    And mandatory winter tyres make the winter driving better than in many other places.

    Of course, the major roads have fences installed with either underpasses or specific openings with appropriate warning signs. Since the moose (or the elk, I suppose) are not aggressive animals they just follow the fence to find an opening. They won't try to bust through.

    1. Indeed! I was the oldest (and dare I say most experienced) driver on the track by a long margin. But we just don't have that sort of training in the UK!

      As for moose, they might not be aggressive, but they do suddenly appear on the road! I was in a car (as the passenger) when that happened!