How To Drive Safely on a Really Slick Road Whether Your Vehicle Is a Four Wheeler or an Eighteen Wheeler

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What The Standard Driving Courses Don’t Tell You

Do you remember your first Drivers Education course? You know, the one where they instructed you on how to survive a skid under super-slick road conditions? Sure you do. The same advice is listed everywhere, in every state driving manual they give us to study for our driving exam:

Do not touch the brake. Steer in the direction of the skid.

Not touching the brake is a very good idea. But…steer in the direction of the skid? Just a minute. Let me get this right. You’re heading down a two-lane highway when a patch of black ice throws you into a skid. You’re doing maybe fifty miles an hour, and you’re headed straight for an oncoming 18-wheeler that is packing a load of logs and is ALSO doing about fifty. And…you’re going to steer TOWARD that onrushing truck?

No. You’re not. All the textbooks in the world can’t make your body do that. Your body is smarter than that. If you follow what they try to teach you, you will die. So,..what SHOULD you do? One thing you should NOT do is take Paul’s driving tips seriously–he’s going for humor, not reality. And when it comes to skids, they just aren’t that funny at the time.

Years back, along about 1960, at age 16 or so, I intuitively figured out something I called the Tap Dance. In 1992, I wrote a small book (now out of print) called The D.T.’s: Driving Tips For Bad Weather. “The Tap Dance” didn’t quite get my point across. So, after some pondering, I expanded that to The Tap Dance Of Life. Over the years, that move has saved me more times than I can count. Most recently, I was returning home from the store, here in our hometown of Parachute, Colorado, on January 30th. It had just quit snowing. I turned off of one street to another, a left turn….

And nearly wiped out. It was considerably slicker, right through that corner, than I had realized. But The Tap Dance Of Life saved me from my own mistake.

Again.

So, what is the technique exactly? Just this: The instant you realize your vehicle is in a skid, you Tap Dance your foot on the accelerator, just as fast as you can! What about steering in the direction of the skid? I’m not actually going to give advice on that, because it would be all too easy for someone to say I gave a bad recommendation. Besides, if it is safe to steer in that direction, go for it. If that 18-wheeler is coming at you, though, you’ll steer away from it, believe me.

Before I get to WHY the Tap Dance works, one more point should be mentioned: There IS an art to it, but any quick movement on and off the footfeed will help. This sort of thing inevitably happens when it is cold and snowy outside, and you’re driving with heavy boots on your feet, not feather-light tap shoes. I should know. During the entire winter of 2006-2007, I was driving 80,000 pound water tankers in this mountainous area…wearing my heavy winter BOGS.

Very little wear on my work boots since becoming a webmaster!

Very little wear on my work boots since becoming a webmaster!

HOW Does The Tap Dance Of Life Actually Work?

I had been using the Tap Dance technique, driving vehicles from compact cars to pickup trucks to big-rig tractor-trailer combinations both long haul and on high mountain dirt roads for decades…yet I had never thought about HOW it worked. When I decided to write on that topic in 1992, though, I needed to figure it out.

You can’t teach what you don’t know.

What I came up with is this: When a vehicle is skidding, it is because of a loss of traction. Well, duh. What you need IS traction: Double duh. So, how do you get it? One of two ways.

Way number one: Follow the standard manuals. With that procedure, which is really a LACK of procedure, you are taking the passive route–letting the tires “rest” in a sense, until they start naturally rolling over the road surface once again.

Way number two: Using The Tap Dance Of Life, you are scrambling for traction in an active process. In other words, it is a little like finding yourself sliding down a steep cliff. If you “steer in the direction of the skid”, you’ll quit skidding, all right–at the bottom of the cliff. But you won’t do that. What you WILL do is scrabble with your fingers for any hold you can get.

Fingers? Hah! You’ll use fingers, toes, knees, or nose! ANYTHING to slow your descent toward disaster. You will. It is instinctive. And once you get the habit, so is the Tap Dance. What happens is: When you tap DOWN on the footfeed, you’re grabbing for traction. But you’re getting back off the gas before you can make the slipping and sliding any worse–just like you won’t slide down that cliff with a single hand position scraping your hide right off. You’ll keep grabbing for different holds until something WORKS.

Same with the Tap Dance. You’ll start to FEEL it grab a little, and then a little more, and more, and before long, you’re out of danger without being involved in a wreck.

A couple of specific examples that have happened over the years: My ex-wife and I were driving back from a November vacation in West Yellowstone, Montana, to our home in Hamilton, Montana. This was in 1991. Near Butte, the road was so slick that a State sanding truck was upside down on one edge of the pavement! When the road sanding trucks roll over, we’re talking slick!

I was driving, as usual, a 1989 Pontiac Grand Prix (front wheel drive) with V-6 engine and good, new, Michelin tires. A few miles west of Butte, we passed a car with two men in it who were creeping along at about 35 miles per hour. I was doing about 60. Watching the rear view mirror, I told my ex,

“Uh-oh! They’re speeding up! They think they’re me!”

Not that I’m saying I’m the best driver in the world on bad roads. There are plenty of my fellow truckers who can do anything I can do with a rig. But I knew these men did NOT know what they were doing, could not feel the road, just figured if I could do it, it must not be that slick.

Sure enough, the next sweeping curve sent them right off the road and into the ditch. Gentle ditch. No harm, no foul. During that whole time, I had felt the Pontiac start to “break loose” once or twice, had tapped the footfeed a couple of times, and maintained control. They did not.

A much scarier event occurred that same winter, same soon-to-be-ex. I was coming out of South Dakota, she was coming out of western Montana, and our intent was that we would meet in Billings. I had that same Pontiac, and had used the Tap Dance several times while coming over the slushy pass out of Sheridan, Wyoming.

She never did make it to Billings–her pickup broke down, 90 miles to the west, in Big Timber. So, when she called me at the motel, I fired up the car again, and went to get her. By the time we headed back east, out of Big Timber, it was pitch black…and the highway was a single sheet of black ice. Not more than an hour after we went through, they closed down the highway. This time I was the one doing maybe 35 miles per hour, in one of the best bad-road machines I’ve ever driven, at that.

Still, that was much faster than the only other vehicle we came upon, a sizeable sedan with a family in it. That car was crawling along at maybe 20, possibly 25 miles per hour. I moved left to pass. Just as I began pulling alongside, the other driver turned right into us.

That is, it would have been crunch time if I had not reacted instantly. Clearly, he had been frozen to the wheel, his eyes glued on the icy terror ahead, not aware of the headlights coming up in his rear view mirror at all. He had NO idea we were even in the same COUNTY. Yup. Only one choice. I whipped the wheel to the left. That did avoid immediate impact.

Of course, it ALSO threw even our super road machine Pontiac into a wild skid. Also of course, I went into an adrenaline-wild Tap Dance Of Life on the footfeed. We whipped left and right, scrabbling for that elusive traction…and somehow missed either hitting the other car OR sliding off into the lefthand ditch.

It can be fun to tell, after it is all safely over. When it’s going down, the only thing that counts is: It works.

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