The driver’s ed everybody needs
The Aspen Times
Barreling upvalley on snowpacked Highway 82 while talking on my cell phone and punching the scan button on the car radio, I look up just in time to see the red lights.
The semi-truck in front of me in the right lane suddenly slams on its brakes, then pitches into an awkward slide while trying to stop short of the pileup I can’t see ahead.
It’s almost impossible not to look at those glowing lights right in front of me. They’re like a tractor beam sucking me toward certain harm, freezing my eyes in their sockets and leaving my hands glued in place on the steering wheel. The numbers and letters on the truck’s license plate come into sharp focus, as does the fading “How’s My Driving?” sticker on the rear door. I feel like I’m in one those Hollywood crash scenes, every moment slowed down for effect before the gruesome impact.
Except the crash never comes. In fact, I’m not even driving on Highway 82. There are no hulking semis anywhere, no lane markers or pavement even. I’m actually speeding around a snow-covered 55-acre lot on the plateau above Woody Creek canyon, dodging orange cones instead of oncoming cars.
OK, rewind the tape back a second. How did I get here? Why am I doing this? Two reasons, actually.
A public relations flak e-mailed me out of the blue and asked if I would like to come be a guinea pig at the Aspen Motorsports Park’s new winter driving school before it opened to the public. Full disclosure: She promised free breakfast and lunch.
The e-mail made it sound as if there might be a chance to do doughnuts on a huge patch of ice in a front-wheel-drive Ford Escort going about 40 miles an hour. The idea of this alone was enough to make me skip a morning of powder turns. While driving around the new winter track set up at the privately-owned Woody Creek club, however, it becomes readily apparent to me that there’s another reason I’m here.
I need this course like Britney needs round-the-clock counseling.
Despite years of thinking of otherwise, I learn I’m actually like most other people. And when I say that, I mean an accident waiting to happen when it comes to driving in the snow.
I’ve got a spotless driving record, and a four-wheel-drive vehicle with good snow tires and anti-lock brakes ” all things that tend to make people think they won’t end up as another highway statistic when driving on packed snow and ice.
An hour and a half with the expert instructors at Woody Creek shows me otherwise. If that imaginary semi in front of me was real, and it did come to a sudden stop, I’d probably be in a whole heap of trouble before my morning on the track. Here’s what I learned.
The truth is, most of us never practice accident scenarios in our cars. We just assume the best and think that we’ll be able to escape a car accident ” miraculously ” if and when we run into trouble.
Now, seriously, think about that. How many other emergencies in life do you prepare for by just thinking you’ll get it right the first time without practice?
Do you go backcountry skiing without avalanche training? Whitewater rafting without a primer on what to do if you fall out of the boat, or worse, the whole raft flips? Heck, do you not practice fire drills at your office?
In a briefing before our group of eight drivers gets into our respective cars, James Burke, the lead instructor at AMP, gives us a rundown of what to expect during our time on the course. He explains that the best way to avoid a winter driving accident is to know as much about them as possible: How they typically happen, what drivers tend to do in an emergency situation, and how cars handle on ice and snow.
The first lesson I learn is that my eyes are my best defense. As Burke explains, most driving accidents occur because people are only paying attention to what’s immediately in front of them. They never see the pileup they’re about to get into because they don’t see the minivan four cars ahead that slams on its brakes.
And, when the car right in front of you does slam on its brakes, the tendency for most drivers is to lock in on the problem, not the solution. “Most people in accidents, they usually can describe in great detail what was right ahead of them,” James says. “The license plate, the color of the car, all of it. Your hands follow your eyes, and when your eyes lock in on the problem, that’s when you’re in trouble.”
Our group tries to break these tendencies on a slalom course set up on a tight snowpacked patch of road. We start slow, weaving in and out of the cones like we’re back in high school driver’s ed.
Immediately, I realize how easy it is to make the mistake of focusing on the cone nearest to my front bumper. It’s instinctive ” you want to avoid the cone, so you hone right in on it. This is a mistake. I know from experience that when you’re skiing in the trees, you’re not supposed to look at the trees themselves but the spaces between them.
The same principal applies here.
“Look at the last cone,” Burke says over my in-car walkie-talkie. “I don’t want you to look at the car in front of you.”
After two go-rounds on the course, I start to feel like I’m in an Audi commercial ” you know, the one where it says in tiny print on the bottom of the screen: “Professional driver on closed course. Do not attempt.”
I’ve got this slalom thing down, even when we increase the speed from 15 mph to 20, then 25. It becomes second nature to focus on the spaces between the cones while not narrowing my field of vision. Even though I’m not looking at the cones, it’s as if I can feel them ” knowing exactly how far away they are from my tires as I zip between them. I then begin to wonder: Would I feel this confident if the cones were actually massive boulders, or worse, a herd of elk with massive racks of sharp antlers?
Our next test on the course is making a sudden lane change. It’s a scenario that’s commonplace on highways, regardless of the season: Someone hits the brakes right ahead of you in the middle of your lane.
As James explains, the tendency for most people in this situation is to slam on their brakes, too, instead of getting their Jeff Gordon on and nimbly crossing over into the other lane. Braking seems like the quickest solution to avoid danger, when in truth, it’s quite often the opposite.
Especially when you’re driving a front-wheel-drive Escort like the one I’m in that has lousy tires and doesn’t come with anti-lock brakes. Slamming the brakes will only lock up my front tires, sending me, like a cruise missile, straight into the thing I’m hoping to avoid.
A better alternative is be steady with the wheel, maintain speed, if only braking slightly, and direct the car into the other lane, bypassing an accident and the hassle of dealing with insurance agents.
Of course, this is easily said than done. On an icy track, it’s easy to jerk the wheel too fast and send yourself careening into a sideways slide. Or brake too hard and then jerk the wheel and do the same thing.
The best drivers are those who know how to maximize the amount of traction on the road at all times, Burke says. Turning decreases traction, as does braking. Doing both at the same time ” at high speeds ” can be a recipe for danger.
In this scenario, the best thing is to maintain speed and just power through the lane change. It’s easy at lower speeds, but much more difficult at higher speeds when you’re teetering on the tiny line between success and ending up in the ditch.
One of the first drivers in the cue, a 16-year-old high school girl named Shawn, finds this out the hard way, losing her wheels on a turn and barreling into a nearby snowbank.
Of course, nearly all of us behind her in the cue think this is completely awesome, getting out of our cars to give her a round of applause while the AMP instructors tow her out.
Unfortunately, I never get to personally experience the same thrill during my morning at Woody Creek. Despite increasing my speed on all the course’s tests, and learning the difference between overdrive and underdrive while practicing turns, I manage to keep my tires on the road and myself out of the ditch.
Then again, this is probably a good sign. When that truck really does slam on its brakes, I’ll be prepared.
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