Friday, November 13, 2009

The Skid and the Mouse

A brief pause to appreciate the modern miracle of anti-lock brakes.

I was in Alaska for most of the past week.

When I got there, it was chilly, but they were still waiting for the first snow.

When I left, there was 3-6 inches of snow on the ground.

I drove nearly 600 miles in that week, often through near-blizzard conditions (and sometimes in virtual white-outs). I was driving a small Toyota Yaris (which looks a lot like a mouse and handles like one in the snow), so I slowed down when the road conditions were bad. Sometimes I slowed way down.

One night, I was going about 40 on a highway with a speed limit of 65 (through I stretch I'd cruised down days before when the road was clear) and two four-wheel drive trucks winged by me going around 75. Twenty miles later, I saw one of the trucks in a gully by the side of the road with four police cars and a tow truck trying to get him back on the road. I puttered by in the Mouse, going up to 50 when the road was clear and back down to about 40 on the bad stretches.

And I remembered being a passenger in a car decades ago. Going into the mountains, skiing. Driving down a highway slick with snow and ice at about 60. And the car hit something and went into a skid. Suddenly, we'd spun 90 degrees around and were facing the guardrail, but still moving down the road. And then the brakes and steering kicked in and we spun 180 degrees around until we faced the opposite guard rail (again still moving down the road at a high rate of speed). Time just slowed down and the car almost righted itself. Then almost stopped itself. Then slid into a soft wall of snow on the side of the road.

A small change in pressure or steering and the car would have gone into the guardrail and been wrecked. Or another car might have crashed into us. And forget about the car for a minute. This was before air bags, so we easily could have been injured or killed.

I thought about that driving slowly through near-blizzard conditions in Alaska. I probably could have pushed my speed up by another 5-10mph. And the car had anti-lock brakes and airbags, so I probably would have been safe even if it crashed. But I slowed down. And didn't care if it took an extra 10 or 20 minutes to get where I was going.

And the highways were better than the streets in town, which sometimes weren't plowed and often would melt from sunlight and traffic, then freeze again overnight. A couple of times, I had to press hard on the brake and feel the anti-lock mechanism clamping down, shifting between the four wheels hundreds of time per second to bring the Mouse to a safe stop.

I returned the car at night in a light snowfall as the temperatures slid down to around 20 degrees. About a quarter-mile from the airport is a stop light. As I approached, there were two cars waiting in front of me. I hit the brake and the Mouse started to slide forward. The anti-lock braking system kicked in, but the car was still sliding. It was clear that I didn't have enough room to stop and would likely slide into the car in front of me.

Time slowed again. And while the Mouse was trying to stop itself, I noticed there were two lanes in my direction on that road. In my lane, steady traffic had warn down the snow (which had probably just refrozen) to the pavement. The other lane had three inches of snow on the road, but no vehicles. So while the brakes were making that ABS crunching sound, I steered into the other lane, into the deep snow, and easily pulled to a stop at the light. Five minutes later, the car was back in the warm embrace of Avis, unharmed and undamaged. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

When I got home, I told this story to a friend of mine, who listened intently, paused, then said "are you still talking about cars?"


Anonymous said...

I loved this album when it came out. But if the band puts out a record without the frontman can you still call it a "solo album"?

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

Hey hey hey! Let's be careful out there!

Glad you made it home safe!