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.

“I ended up having to let off the brakes so it would straighten up,” Ward says. “It got straightened up, but that was after I went through the light at about 20 miles an hour, laying on my horn so people would look and see me. Luckily, there was no traffic.”

Ward says he was just lightly pumping the brakes while watching the road in front of him and the trailer on his side. “Every time I hit the brakes, the trailer came unglued,” he says.

“Had I freaked out and just stood on the brakes, I’d have got that thing twisted into a pretzel. Each time the trailer broke free, I’d have to let off the brakes and get straightened out again.”

Back off
“The momentum of the truck on snow and ice: it takes a lot longer to stop, even at slow speeds, than it does on dry pavement,” Ward says.

He recommends increasing following distances “five or 10 times more than normal” on icy surfaces.

“I’m a Florida boy, and I’m not familiar with that kind of driving,” Ward says. “It was dark out, and I could not tell the road was icy. I never even knew it as there.”

Going up or down hills, big trucks can start skidding on ice even at crawling speeds.

“I saw a tractor-trailer going down a hill, and you could’ve walked faster than it was going,” Williams says. “But those drive wheels broke free, and that trailer came right around on him.”

That’s how inexperienced drivers learn not to try taking icy hills.

“You want to drive for conditions,” says skid-pad qualified driving instructor John Mueller at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis. “Increase your following distance from 3 to 12 times, depending on vehicle, brakes, tires, roads and whether you’re loaded or empty.”

Plan ahead
“What it really comes down to is that you have to be aware of your surroundings before the situation occurs: inside the truck, outside, on the left and right sides, behind and of course ahead,” says Mueller, who was a Schneider National driver for 20 years. He’s got 16 years of driver-training experience. “Once you get into that emergency situation, you have to deal with it quickly. It happens too fast for you to think once it starts.

“You have to get into that truck every day in the right frame of mind, ready to deal with all the changes out there.”

That includes trip planning. “It’s easy to get into trouble, but there are a lot of ways to avoid it,” Mueller says. “Keep your eye on weather reports, and keep the radio on. Be aware of changing conditions. Know what you’re driving into, and plan your trip accordingly.”

Many safety directors advise parking in snowy or icy conditions. To keep running, plan to go around storms and high-traffic areas, if possible. If not, allow more time to make the trip – even twice as much – and inform your dispatcher or fleet manager of changes you make. If they give you a hard time about it, call the safety department.

Stay calm
“There are so many variables,” Mueller says. “Once the road and climate get like that, you have to constantly compensate for the mistakes of others on the road. That’s where your attitude comes to play. You can’t get angry with your dispatcher or other motorists.”

Driving on slippery roads is high-stress work, but part of driving professionalism is taking weather changes and other motorists’ mistakes in stride, minus any anger. The pros don’t say you shouldn’t get angry; they say you can’t. Anger on the roadway is not an option for a professional driver.

“You can’t let your schedules, your dispatcher or others around you drive your truck for you,” Mueller says. “In these driving conditions, the most important thing becomes just to get there safely.

“Drive with what you’re comfortable doing. Guys out West might drive in the mountains all the time during the winter, and they get some experience. But it might be your first trip out there, and you might not be able to continue.”

Know your brakes
“We want to control-brake as much as possible,” Mueller says. “But, unfortunately, we’re human, and we’re probably going to hit the brakes too hard and lock them up. Then we have to let the antilock brake system go to work.”

Mueller says part of “situational awareness” is knowing whether your truck and trailer have ABS.

“Sometimes the truck has it, sometimes the trailer doesn’t, and vice versa, and that can lead to a potentially hazardous situation,” he says. “If either the tractor or trailer don’t have ABS, then you have to drive as if the whole vehicle doesn’t have it.”

If you’re not sure, ask your maintenance people. “A lot of the older trailers don’t have it,” Mueller says. “If the tractor goes into ABS mode, the trailer will most likely lock its wheels. If you hold the brake down long enough, that will end in a jackknife.

“The skidding wheel will lead. Whether it’s the steers, the drives or the trailer tandems, if you stay on the brakes long enough, the skidding wheels will eventually wind up leading the way.”

Mueller has nothing but respect for ABS.

“It’s a great system,” he says. “It’s a computer that senses when the wheels lock up. It pulses a lot faster than we could ever stab the brakes, and that allows you to continue steering. That’s the really great thing about ABS.”

But make sure it’s on all the wheels before relying on it.

Engine brakes can also lead to trouble on slippery surfaces.

“In situations where people run engine brakes, if you take your foot off the throttle, they’ll come on, you’ll go into a skid,” Williams says. That’s because engine brakes slow the tractor only. The trailer will push against the slowing tractor, forcing the rig into a skid and possible jackknife.

Make it smooth
On a slippery surface, any sudden movements can cause problems. It’s important to drive gently and smoothly. Other than engine brakes, normal throttle use can easily cause a skid on an icy road. Slow down and drive as far ahead in traffic as possible so you can feather the brakes and throttle.

Williams recommends driving a gear or two higher than normal to minimize the torque transmitting to the drives.

“In a situation where I’m driving in snow and ice at, say, 35 miles an hour, if I’d normally use seventh gear, then I’d go with eighth or ninth,” Williams says. “That way when I use the throttle, the drives will be less likely to start spinning.”

Shifting gears up or down can jerk the truck just enough to start a spin on a slippery surface, so shift carefully: don’t “bang” the gears. Take extra care if your truck has an automatic transmission.

“In bad weather with an automatic, the truck might downshift on you if you slow down,” Williams says. “Then you get into that situation where you have too much power going to the rear wheels.”

Also remember that a road surface need not be covered with ice and snow to be slippery. Ward recalls waiting at a red light on a rainy day.

“It turned green, and I started out,” he says. “There was another truck coming on the cross street. He had obviously misjudged the red light, mashed the brakes on that wet road and gone into a skid.”

“Had I been in la-la land, not looking, and waltzed right out in front of him, he’d have T-boned me,” Ward says. “But I saw him and stopped after about 5 feet.”

Ward says the other truck slid through the red light.

“I was looking right at him as he went by. I could see he was wigging out,” Ward says. “I guess he got off the brakes, because he got straightened out as he went through the intersection and he just kept going. But if I had not seen him coming, that might have been the end for me right there.”

Instead Ward just sat and watched. “I waved to him as he went by,” he says.

One final tip: get advice from drivers who’ve been in skids, but don’t forget about those who haven’t.

“I don’t have a lot of experience with skids,” says Williams. “I just don’t get into them.”


Skid Causers
A slippery road is only one factor in a skid. Watch out for the following:

Driving too fast
Locking the brakes
Sudden steering wheel movements
Too much sudden throttle
Wind, especially with a light load
Inattention or excessive sleepiness

Improperly adjusted brakes or low tire tread
Engine brakes
Shifting roughly
Hills


If You Get Into a Skid

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