Staying in control

by Al Goodhall

“Never break traction.”

I received those three words of advice from a driving instructor as I was bobtailing along a secondary highway breaking through snowdrifts. I always thought this was a gutsy move on the part of my instructor.

It was the most practical and useful driving lesson I had ever received, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. I was learning to keep the vehicle moving by finding a gear that provided just the right amount of torque to keep the wheels turning forward without causing the drive wheels to lock up (and skid) due to engine braking when I eased off the fuel.

This experience hammered home the importance of being in the right gear. At the same time, it taught me to develop a soft touch with the fuel. But I was as green as green could be at the time, so I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this simple lesson.

When you maintain friction between the tires and the road surface – no matter the state of that road surface – you can say you are in control of the vehicle. Once that grip on the road is lost, the odds of your day going to the dogs probably jumps to at least 50%.

Never breaking traction is a simple piece of advice, but there are many variables at play out on the road. You have control over some of those variables, some you can allow for with a reasonable certainty of their effect, and other variables come into play depending on the depth of your experience – and if you’re smart you’ll allow for the unknown.

You have complete control over the speed of the vehicle, over how aggressively you accelerate, and over how you employ your brakes and engine brake.

You have complete control over what is happening between your ears. That is, you are engaged and attentive, and driving defensively at all times.

You can adjust your driving for variables such as tire wear, vehicle weight, how weight is distributed in your trailer, visibility, condition and type of road surface, and topography (grade, curves, cant of road, construction zones, etc.). I’m sure as an experienced driver, you could name many more.

Recognizing areas that attract deer and moose and roads that are subject to frost heaves in the spring are two examples of how you may adjust your driving based on your experience rather than what you are seeing through the windshield.

That long curve you rolled around without any issues a month ago may be a rollover waiting to happen if there is a frost heave around the blind corner and your load has a higher center of gravity than it did a month ago.

Can you allow for the unknown? Sure. It can be as simple as always keeping a big space cushion around you that gives you the time to react to those unknown hazards.

In the course of an average day all of these factors may come into play. The same stretch of road holds a different experience each time you drive it. You never stop learning. Out on the road everything is fluid and constantly changing. Maintaining traction in all conditions is the key to control and minimizing risk to yourself and others.

Winter is already happening in some parts of the country. Take care out there folks.

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