The long slide

| February 01, 2007

With these seven steps, you can avoid dangerous skids.

Truck drivers can attend special classes that feature all the latest techniques and
technologies for handling a skidding 18-wheeler.

But let’s be realistic: once a big truck goes into a skid, especially on a slippery or crowded highway, all bets are off. Complex combinations of physical forces, panic and other motorists’ reactions stack up against a happy ending. If you get away with just the truck in a ditch, you’ll be lucky. Multiple-vehicle smashups, closed interstates, long delays, catastrophic damage, serious injuries and even deaths are the most probable consequences.

That’s why professional driving instructors and seasoned truckers agree: the best way to handle a skid on a slippery surface is to avoid skids at all costs in the first place.

Take it slow
“In slippery conditions or poor visibility, we teach students to slow down and don’t drive beyond your headlights,” says Roy Williams, driving instructor at Sandersville Technical College in Sandersville, Ga. “‘Slow down’ covers about everything.”

This common-sense advice seems inescapable, in the same neighborhood as “don’t breathe underwater” or “don’t light your clothes on fire.” But every winter there’s a new crop of inexperienced drivers who somehow just don’t get it, and they mess it up for the rest.

“A lot of people drive beyond their abilities,” says Williams, a former driver. “You get out there and you get a few miles of experience behind you, and you get overconfident.

“Everybody has deadlines, but the freight in the ditch isn’t going to help anybody. We can all keep moving if everybody goes slowly. But when you can’t get through, it’s usually not because of the weather but because somebody got going too fast, got into trouble and blocked the road.”

Be afraid
Perhaps the second greatest factor is “no fear.” Driving an 18-wheeler on a slippery surface is extremely dangerous; only fools do it unafraid.

But of course, driving panicked or scared witless only compounds the danger.

“Too much fear is incapacitating,” Williams says. “But on a slippery surface, a little fear is a healthy thing.”

Slightly scared and not skidding is better than skidding and fighting panic.

“It scared the beejeebees out of me,” says Allied Systems driver Tim Ward of Margate, Fla., telling of a skid he experienced when he’d been driving just two years. “I had no idea how far you can skid on snow and ice, even at just 30 miles an hour.

“It all happens so fast, in just a few seconds,” says the 28-year veteran driver. “I was going through Evansville, Ind., one night. It was below zero and snowing slightly. The road just looked wet with a little bit of blowing snow.”

Ward found out that at below-freezing temperatures, a wet roadway could really be an icy roadway.

“A light changed,” he says, “and it kind of caught me off guard. I hit the brakes and started sliding.” His trailer – a car hauler stacked with nine vehicles behind a GMC Brigadier day cab – started coming around on his right.

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