safety January 10, 2018

Slip Sliding Away

Those of us on the road Wednesday evening, January 20th, can attest to the fact that a sudden icing at sunset caused far more chaos on the roads than the well-publicized “Snowzilla” of 2 days later. A light snow compacted into ice on the cold roads at sunset. Unfortunately the authorities decided not to treat the roads since it wasn’t expected to amount to much. The result was a skating rink. People spent hours on trips that normally take 15 minutes. My 25-minute commute from Burke to Mt. Vernon took four and a half hours, and others faced far worse. Sudden ice-overs are far more common in the DC Metropolitan area than snow.

The key to driving on ice:

Don’t do it. You have far less control over your vehicle on ice, so it is to be avoided if it all possible. Unfortunately you are usually on your way home when the icing occurs or becomes apparent, so there may be nothing to do but press on.

However, if you do it, consider this. Of all the things you can’t control, what you have the least control over is other drivers. So as much as you can, keep as much distance as possible between you and the cars around you. This is harder than it may seem, because people drive like cattle, finding safety in the herd. People like to speed up to the car ahead of them. People like the benefits of their neighbors’ headlights. Distance is your friend. Keep it at all costs. Reduce speeds dramatically. Anything over 35 mph is too fast to give yourself any reaction time if you start to slide.

If someone decides they are going to draft you and ride your bumper, gradually (very gradually) slow down until they can’t stand it and they pass you. Avoid any sudden changes of speed or direction. Brakes are your enemy, only to be used in the lightest way. Slow down by letting off the gas, coasting, and downshifting the transmission when speed-appropriate. Even too quick a downshift can send you into a slide. Accelerating, braking, and steering are all to be done in the lightest and most gradual way.

The distance you keep around you allows you to do this. I traversed the Fairfax County Parkway from Burke to Richmond Highway this way in about an hour and began to think I was home free… then I turned northbound onto Richmond Highway. It’s an ugly 2-mile stretch of road under the best of circumstances, and that night it was bumper to bumper standing traffic, with nowhere to pull over, nowhere to turn around, and all the skill in the world couldn’t help anyone.

After 3 hours of edging along I came to the crest of a hill and I could actually see my turn. And I could see 100 yards of pure ice, downhill on my side, with a pile of damaged and disabled vehicles at the bottom of the hill. Two desperate Fairfax County Police Officers (the only authorities I saw all night) were risking their lives on foot trying to keep the last lane and a half open by sending the cars down one at a time, and yelling “Don’t touch your brakes” at each driver. Some did better than others, and some didn’t make it. When my turn came I crawled down the hill in first gear and thankfully made it.

And that sums it up. Don’t touch your brakes! And since you can’t touch your brakes on ice, drive a lot slower, or don’t drive at all!

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