Trying to get some traction on our icy roads

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By Steve Doyle

A guy on the phone was making a point about last Tuesday morning’s open skating session on our county’s roads.

“Don’t you think it’s time people started taking responsibility for driving on icy roads, like they used to a long time ago?” he asked.

 “Now people expect the roads to be in perfect condition all the time. They don’t know how to drive on them when they’re not.”

My automatic response: Road crews work hard, and the salt and brine are helpful, especially when the roads were as slick as you-know-what on a doorknob.

“Brine is a waste of money,” he said. “It just washes off. Money is tight these days. Why do we spend it on that? Why can’t people just take a little more care?”

My only other point: Other than crime, people expect our public officials to devote most of their attention to our roads.

He agreed. “I’m just thinking the public needs to take more responsibility.”

I take literary liberty with that discussion to prove a point: Everybody – myself included – likes to complain with the roads are too icy for human passage, but none of us is prepared to do much about it.

We awaken as we did last Tuesday and set out on our daily commutes. We might give ourselves an extra five minutes, and we might not drive as close to the vehicle in front of us as we normally would.

We listen to traffic reports, watch for icy patches, take care with bridges and overpasses and all the while probably curse – relative magnitudes, of course – the absence of salt trucks and graders or our perceived ineptness of our fellow road warriors.

That’s how we as drivers deal with slippery roads in 2010.

And though I have a bit of fun with the topic, it’s really no laughing matter.

You certainly don’t laugh when your car goes sliding out of control while you can do nothing more grip and grin.

You certainly don’t chuckle when your wife calls and tells you of her terrifying trek off the interstate, down a bank, through some trees and up another bank, all with your 2-year-old daughter crying in the back seat.

No, you don’t make fun of that. You simply close your eyes in a prayer of thanks.

In fact, in many of these circumstances, prayer is our best and only valid technique.

Beyond that, the keys to driving in such conditions effectively are, in my view, experience, equipment, experience, location and experience.

Drivers today are much better equipped to handle confounding conditions than we were when the oldest among us first took the wheel. Most of us drive vehicles with either 4-wheel drive or front-wheel drive, which are significant improvements over the standard rear-wheel-drive of the past.

Our tires are manufactured for all sorts of conditions. Are you old enough to recall when you had a separate set of “snow tires” in the garage or when you put chains on your tires to help with traction? You don’t worry about that now, unless your primary vehicle spends its Sundays on a racetrack.

We have vehicles with better suspension and stability, positive traction (for some) and computerized antiskid systems.

Those facts made it jaw-droppingly jarring that photographs of snow-bound vehicles in Wednesday’s Sentinel-News featured a Land Rover, a BMW and a pickup truck. Which brings us back to driver experience.

Do you recall when you became experienced with driving on ice and snow? I can’t tell you the exact date, but I can describe for you in agonizing detail that moment when I received my bachelor’s in bad roads.

Turn back to a cold winter night early in 1971. A buddy and I met at the old Burger Queen on East Main Street and decided to go visit a friend of ours who lived near Eminence. We left my car next to Convenient and took off as it started to rain.

Now we weren’t there long, maybe a couple of hours, but when we decided to return to Shelbyville, we found out quickly we had stayed much too long.

Sleet had formed a bed of ice, upon which was layered a beautiful spread of snow, creating just the sort of hidden madness we faced Tuesday.

And there we were on KY 55 in the days of Thrill Hill, before it was widened and straightened it into a reasonable road, in the days of a serpentine center line and humpback curves that required 25 mph under any conditions.

My buddy drove a late-‘60s model Chevy wagon with a 3-speed column shifter. And we were lucky. Because we didn’t go too fast on those 10 or 11 miles, but we did a lot of stopping, down-gearing and soft, slow turns.

One time, as we approached one of those semi-hairpins, I thought for sure we were going to kiss a fence post, but he managed to get us stopped.

At last he dropped me at my car. I should have slept in it. Because my car, though a huge-and-heavy Mercury Parklane, had an automatic transmission and a less-experienced driver.

My trip to Simpsonville was the stuff of Dan Jansen, only I died about a thousand times. Every hill on U.S. 60, I navigated sideways. How I made it up without just stalling, I’ll never know.

When I was approaching Big Bullskin Creek, I didn’t think I was going to make it. I was just sliding sideways, and I thought I was at first going to hit the bridge and then just new I was going to slide off into the trees and maybe the water.

I swear the front wheels stopped inches from the edge, even as an east-bound car approached the bridge, its lights landing on me. Later, a friend who was riding in that car with her parents said she exclaimed, “Oh, no, that’s Steve’s car. I hope he doesn’t run off the road.”

Well, I didn’t. I got it straight and going again and continued my sidewinder excursion. After what seemed like hours of sliding and sweating, I made it.

But since that night, I have felt capable if not comfortable of driving on snow and ice (setting aside the time I slid off my parent’s driveway and bumped into one of their trees in a holiday humiliation).

After going away and spending most of the next four decades in Florida, I will admit this: I’m happy for every little advantage the road crews provide me.

I took responsibility for the roads back then, but I wasn’t happy about it.