advice from a fake consultant

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On Roads And Trouble, Or, The Third Annual Winter Survival Story

It takes only a quick glance at the national weather outlook for today to realize that lots of people will be dealing with Big Winter in places that might not normally expect it.

Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri--and especially Arkansas--will be at the heart of this weather event…other states, like Oklahoma and Mississippi and Virginia will be at its periphery.

Not to put too fine a point on the thing, but many of y’all are not exactly experienced snow drivers …and it looks like today you may need to be.

Lucky for you, your friendly fake consultant drives in miserable conditions all the time, which means you can gain the benefit of years of experience in just a few minutes.

So before you go outside, fire up a cup of hot chocolate, come on back, and we’ll send you on your way a bit warmer—and a bit safer to boot.

...Winter storm spreading from the Southern Plains to the Mid-Atlantic...
Snow, sleet, and freezing rain are expected to continue today from the Southern Plains to the Mid Atlantic coast with major icing expected from the Lower and Middle Mississippi Valley into the Ohio Valley

--National Weather Service forecast, January 27th, 2009

Another lovely day to drive, eh?
Before we actually talk about actual driving, a quick piece of clothing advice:

Throw a blanket, some boots, a heavy coat, and a decent ski cap in the trunk of the car…just in case. You might not get stuck in a snow bank, but if you have to spend an hour or two by the side of the road waiting for a tow truck in lousy weather, you’ll be glad you did.

That said, let’s get to some basic rules about driving when snow, slush and ice are on the roads:

--Don’t do it. If you didn’t grow up in some place like Michigan, and you’re not the driver of the local police car or fire truck or tow truck, just call in. Your boss’ answering machine will be sympathetic—and my guess is that the company will not pay the deductable on any body damage incurred on the drive to the office.

--If you really have to drive, how about this: the four-wheel drive vehicle you’re about to get into is of some value when you are trying to get going—but it won’t help you a bit when you’re trying to stop.

As it turns out, stopping distances for that four-wheel drive family truckster on ice might be 12 times longer than they are on dry pavement. The published stopping distance for most vehicles from 60mph to zero on dry pavement is 120 to 140 feet, meaning it should take about ¼ mile to stop on ice from that same speed….and 400 feet or so on wet pavement.

Trust me on this: stopping on ice is no easy task, and doing that same NASCAR drafting maneuver y’all are so fond of on the freeway is the best way I know of to end up parked in the back seat of the car you were drafting.

Instead, leave a ton of room between your bumper and the next…which leads to my next warning:

--Not all ice is easily seen. There really is such a thing as “black ice”—and it really can mess up your day. If you’ve never seen it before, the basic concept is that a thin glaze of ice forms over asphalt…and because it’s clear, before you know it you’re sliding out of control and straight into the nearest guard rail…and you’re not sure exactly why.

It turns up sooner than you think it will, too. 36 degrees F. and ice will form on those pesky bridges and overpasses. Sometimes it never melts during the day (especially in the shade), so even if the sun is out you may still get a nasty surprise around that next bend in the road. (That is exactly what happened just two days ago on the road up from the freeway to my own house, where a Chevy pickup had lost control and driven straight off the road into some bushes after rounding a sharp corner.)

There are some hints that will let you know you might be in an iced over area—or that you’re about to be.

If it’s dark, and you see the “sparkling” of ice on the sides of the roads in your headlights, that’s a big hint.

If some of the pavement looks gray…but some of it looks unnaturally black…that is a big-time hint that you’re looking at black ice.

If it snowed overnight…then that snow melted during the day…and it’s getting down to freezing again…you will be looking at lots of ice—black and otherwise.

If you can see frost—there’s a good chance black ice is in the neighborhood.

If it's not raining and you can see the reflection of headlights or tail lights on the pavement, you are traveling on an icy road.

--I know this will sound a bit like a cliché, but slowing down makes a huge difference in getting there or not getting there.

If you travel just a few miles up the freeway from my house, you will find yourself at a ski area. As a result, every Saturday and Sunday morning the road is full of drivers who go too fast until they see someone spun out…which causes them to slow down so they can get a good look…after which they all speed right back up to 70mph…even if it’s snowing at the time…until they get to the next spinout…where they slow down again.

All they while, I’m the driver over in the right lane doing 55 or less getting dirty looks from the spinning throng. (I drove home one morning doing 35 on the freeway—but I passed at least a dozen spinouts in 20 miles…and more than once I’ve seen cars blaze past me, only to be spun out farther down the road.)

I always get there…and some of them don’t.

--At this point, it’s time to talk about that mysterious piece of advice: “steer into the skid”.

If you should find yourself in a skid, the front of the car will likely be headed in a direction you did not expect—and if you were going in a straight line before the skid, your tires are pointed straight ahead.

What you want to do is turn the tires in the direction you want the car to go, in the hopes the front of the car will eventually turn in that direction as well.

Here’s an example: you’re headed in a straight line, when suddenly the front of the car starts sliding over to the left. You want to turn the steering wheel to the right—but not too far or too fast—so that the vehicle gradually recovers to traveling in a straight line again.

Turning too sharply (“overcorrection”) can cause the car to spin in the other direction—or even worse, flip, especially if one of the wheels finds dry pavement while the others are sliding. This is a big problem for large vehicles, so be careful when you feel the sliding.

If you have no experience at all with this stuff, it’s possible to practice in a medium safe environment. Find yourself a nice, flat, empty parking lot that has a nice light coating of snow. (Did you check to be sure there are none of those concrete blocks marking the rows?) You can induce spins by accelerating a bit (try to keep it below 30 mph or so), then cutting the wheel sharply in one direction or another (again, not too sharply), then take your foot off the gas and try to turn the wheel to recover.

After a bit of practice, you’ll be surprised how much more comfortable you’ll be with your car—and your driving skills.

--Now I know that this will sound counterintuitive, but using the brakes can often make a bad situation worse. It is often better to just take your foot off the gas and wait until you have control of the car.

The reason for this is because locking up the brakes prevents the wheels from “guiding” the car, giving you less steering control—and potentially converting you from a driver into a pinball.

Antilock brakes are not a complete solution to the problem…but they’re a pretty good solution, most of the time. On ice, not much of anything will help, short of special ice tires or certain tire chains--maybe.

And while we’re talking about antilock brakes—never pump them. You will “confuse” them, and make the problem you’re in much worse than it would have been otherwise.

Some of you have “hydroplaned” before, which is a perfect example of one time when just lifting your foot and waiting for the tires to make contact with the ground is the smartest thing to do. (Helpful hint: try not to drive in the “rutted” portion of a lane during rainstorms. Try instead to get up on the higher pavement in the lane.)

Of course, the fact that you might have to lift your foot off the brakes and just wait until you can control the car again is just one more argument for going slower in the first place.

Now having given this advice, I will tell you that, just like in “Ghostbusters”, on certain rare occasions you might have to “cross the streams”. A perfect example: if you’re sliding backwards down sheet ice, it might be possible to control your speed or even flip the car in the other direction through skillful—or extremely lucky—use of the brakes. (Of course, it’s also entirely possible that you might end up testing your airbags…)

That’s about a hot chocolate’s worth of advice, so let’s wrap it up right here:

If you can’t stay home, slow down.

Get some distance between your bumper and the next bumper.

Black ice creates an excellent aerobic exercise opportunity that you won’t soon forget, as do uncontrolled spins. Be smart. Respect the ice.

Not using the brakes can often be the smartest thing you can do.

“Turning into the skid” means making the wheels point in the direction you want the car to go. Go find a nice, safe parking lot and practice this skill.

And last but not least, if all this good advice fails to get you home safely, make sure you have some warm clothes in the car—the wait for the tow truck is likely to be a long one.

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