The Chain’s in Command – Part 2

by Edo van Belkom


Mark is traveling to Winnipeg on Hwy. 17. He checks the forecast and it looks bad, so he chains up long before the snow. After driving a while Mark is wondering if the snow will ever come, but it does eventually hit, and when it does, it’s a monster…

After driving a few kilometers through the storm, things calmed down slightly and Mark was able to see the road ahead better. The snow continued to fall, but it was falling down now as opposed to blowing every which way imaginable. There was also a fair accumulation of snow on the highway, at least four or five centimeters with more adding up by the hour. As he drove, Mark could feel the chains he’d installed just outside Thunder Bay biting into the ice and asphalt beneath the snow. It was a good feeling, made even better by knowing he’d done the right thing putting them on when there was no obvious sign of the impending storm.

Mark had looked up the history of snow chains the last time he bought a pair for Mother Load and learned that they’d been invented by an American named Harry D. Weed of Canastota, New York. Apparently, Weed got the idea for his “Grip Tread for Pneumatic Tires” after watching drivers of the day wrap vines or rope around their tires to increase traction in mud and snow.

But for all the good they did, snow chains weren’t a wonder cure for icy road conditions. Mark had seen plenty of highways so covered with ice that no amount of chains would ever get a truck through. And then there was the human element. Plenty of drivers installed chains for use on an icy road, but then failed to modify their driving accordingly. Driving too fast – over 50 km/h – put too much stress on the chains and caused damage to both the tires and the road. And then there’s laziness, when a driver is through the ice and snow but continues driving on dry roads for way too long, wearing away the life of the chains and risking damage to everything the chains come into contact with.

And then there’s good old-fashioned human error. Mark was ashamed to admit it, but he’d seen drivers apply chains to non-drive wheels. Or, applying chains in a blizzard or in bitter cold often resulted in chains being installed improperly – usually too loose – which heightened the risk of a chain breaking at the least opportune time. Mark had seen trucks parked in truck stops during snowstorms with chains wrapped around their drivetrains or gashes slashed into trailers by broken chains that had been whipping around freely for kilometers.

But in every instance, it’s not the fault of the chains, but rather the fault of the operator who never bothered to practice installing chains.

Like this driver up ahead.

In the distance, Mark could see a semi-trailer pulled partway onto the shoulder with a string of cars lined up behind it trying to skid or slide around him and continue down the highway. The big rig wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon without a set of tire chains to bite into the ice. Even from a distance Mark could see the semi’s drive wheels spinning and bucking against the ice.

“Ah,” he said aloud. “What are you doing?”

Mark didn’t want to stop, especially since he was making such good time, but he was too much of an old-school driver not to see if the driver needed help.

And so, Mark slowed down and rolled down his passenger window.

“Weren’t you stopped by the cop back there?” Mark said, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “He was checking everybody for chains.”

The driver smiled and sheepishly turned away from Mark. After a moment, he looked back in Mark’s direction and said, “I have them, but I don’t know how to put them on.”

“Of course you don’t,” Mark said under his breath. Then after a long sigh, he said out loud, “You want some help?”

The face on the driver truck lit up. “Would you, sir?”

Mark shook his head slightly wondering why he was doing this when he’d taken so much care to install his own chains in dry comfortable conditions. But, he couldn’t back out of his offer now. “Get them out,” he said. “I’m going to pull over up ahead.”

Mark pulled in front of the stuck truck and put his hazard lights on. Then he took his time getting dressed to ensure he’d be as least affected by the weather as possible. But when Mark approached the stalled driver, he was amazed that the man had just a light jacket, a ball cap on his head, sneakers on his feet and knitted gloves on his hands. “Nice to see you’re ready for this,” he said, the sarcasm lost on his cold, wet colleague.

He picked up one set of chains and set them over a pair of drive tires. Then he did the same on the passenger side. “Get inside!” he told the driver. “Let the clutch out slowly. I’ll tell you when to stop.”

Here was one of the problems with installing chains in bad weather. If the tires spun it was possible the chains could be sent flying down the road. But luck was on their side as the driver turned the wheel less than a full rotation and the chains were in the perfect position to complete the installation.

“Watch me,” Mark said, “So you can do it yourself next time.”

Mark then went about attaching the chains. To his credit, the driver helped quite a bit, getting the idea quickly and hurrying around to the other side of the truck to affix the passenger side chains. Minutes later, the driver was in the truck and his chained-up tires were miraculously biting into the roadway.

“Thank you, sir,” the driver said. “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me,” Mark replied, looking at the long row of headlights behind them. “Just get the hell out of the way!”

Mark Dalton returns next month in Part 3 of The Chain’s in Command.

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