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On the skids and loving it

GRAND BEND, Ont. - Skid school is a blast. Where else do you get a chance to spin tractors and jackknife trailers? But there's a serious lesson being taught at the Canadian Centre for Decision Driving...

SKID SCHOOL: Clutch in and hard brake left!Photo by

SKID SCHOOL: Clutch in and hard brake left!

Photo by

GRAND BEND, Ont. – Skid school is a blast. Where else do you get a chance to spin tractors and jackknife trailers? But there’s a serious lesson being taught at the Canadian Centre for Decision Driving in Grand Bend, Ont. The techniques you learn may save a life somewhere down the road.

CCDD leases a patch of specially treated pavement from a local dragstrip, the Grand Bend Motorplex. The partnership seems appropriate. Course designer Dave Westlake wants the trucks to be rolling at 60-65 km/h when they hit the water-slicked pad.

“We want to get them as close to manageable speed as possible,” Westlake said.

The session I attended was given to seven fresh-faced, twenty-something lads who had just finished a six week course at Tri-County Truck Driver Training. They were so fresh the ink on their AZ licences was still wet.

We were teamed two to a tractor and my partner was 28-year-old Rob Reid of Cambridge, Ont. He was the most aggressive driver of the bunch and determined to run through all 10 gears on each pass through the acceleration lane.

“Clutch in, hard brake left!” barked Westlake from a two-way radio mounted on the dash. For a second our out-of-control Freightliner appeared headed for a Quonset hut behind a chain link fence. Then it lurched abruptly and spun 270 degrees. I was thrown part way off the seat and held back by the shoulder strap.

“It’s nice to get the drivers just out of the box,” grinned Westlake when we pulled up beside him.

The next exercise was called “Wipe out, Touchdown.” Westlake set up a pair of barrels at the end of the pad. The idea was to spin the tractor around 180 degrees and navigate through the pylons backwards.

“Pretend you’re bobtailing on the 401 and you hit an icy patch,” said Westlake. “You hit the brakes and start spinning. On one side you’ve got a school bus of kids and on the other side you’ve got a propane tanker.”

CCDD has seven trucks in its collection. An assortment of Freightliners, Volvos, Internationals and Kenworths, some of them are former highway tractors that have been donated to the school. The units are painted with checkered flags and shooting flames and will probably never see the open road again.

Each tractor is fitted with a pair of eyelets welded onto the frame. Steel cables are hooked through the eyelets and then onto the body of the trailer. This safety feature keeps the trailer from coming around the front of the tractor during a jackknife.

And come around they do. A sharp tug from the cables means that the trailer is going to jackknife and it’s not coming back.

“The tractors take quite a beating” according to Gus Rahim, owner of the centre. “We’ve had to have some of the frames straightened.” He’s also proud of the new set of recap slicks he’s found for the Volvo that make tractor skids that much easier to get into.

Although the trainees in my session were novices, CCDD works with drivers of all experience levels from a variety of trucking sectors. Drivers for Chapman’s Ice Cream had just been through the course and the next day another group was slated to arrive from St. Mary’s Cement. The Canadian military also sends its transport personnel to the course.

“A lot of thought has gone into the exercises” said Westlake. “The better the drivers are, the more we throw at them.”

Skids are often complicated things. Anything from load shift, to black ice, to strong winds could cause your wheels to slip and most veterans have experienced this bottomless feeling a time or two.

CCDD does not want you to power out of a trailer skid (which is my first response). Rather, the manual suggests you engage the clutch (to maintain rolling traction), and concentrate on steering while making judicious brake applications.

Westlake doesn’t care if you use stab or threshold braking – whatever works best for the individual. “We’ve taken the best ideas from different courses,” he said.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and headphones, Westlake rapped non-stop into his headset.

“Whoa…jackknife,” he yelled as one of the young drivers cut down pylons on both sides of the practice alley. “Bonus! Double jacknife!”

CCDD in Grand Bend, Ont. is Canada’s only truck skid test track. The one day course runs from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and there’s still time to get to the beach (Grand Bend is located on Lake Huron and has one of Canada’s best beaches).

The fee for non-affiliate members is $400. But remember – owner/operators can write this off as a training expense. CCDD also offers discounts to groups and members of the Truck Training Schools Association of Ontario. So go ahead and jacknife! It might be the best lesson you ever learned.

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