Your average semi truck can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds, and are generally somewhere around 70ish feet long. Truck drivers face all different kinds of weather conditions, traffic hazards, and are usually on a time crunch to get their load somewhere by a certain time. Even driving super-slow in adverse weather conditions, there is always a chance this long and heavy truck could lose traction and go into a skid, and there’s even a few different types of skids. Different axles on the trucks can lock up in different combinations, and depending on which ones do, the truck can react differently in each situation. Just learning how to drive a truck and control it in normal conditions is a lot to learn, so trying to imagine skidding in one of these beasts is pret-ty darn scary. So what does Fox Valley Tech do? They throw us into a skid so we can see what it would feel like, all the while teaching us how to use a focal point, properly brake, clutch, counter steer and react as quickly as possible.
Not only was this an incredible learning experience, it was SO much freakin’ fun! It certainly wouldn’t be any fun if it were to happen out on the road for real, but on the school’s skid pad (Wisconsin Decision Driving Center), they give us the chance to get a “feel” for skidding in a controlled environment so we can hopefully know how to react properly if it does happen later on. Basically, in fun terms, we got to skid out some old police cars and semi trucks. Yeah. It was pretty awesome.
The skid pad is slippery when it’s dry – it’s just how they designed it. Then they take these huge hoses and water the course down so it’s even more slick. First we went out in the old police cars. We took a sharp turn at a controlled speed, then went again at a quicker speed without anti-lock brakes (ABS) and learned to squeeze brake to keep the car in control. It was actually kind of tough. Then we turned the ABS back on, and let me tell you – ABS is amazing. Your car probably has it. Be happy. We did this in the trucks later, too, and the difference in stopping distance was major. ABS must save thousands of lives. For real. Anyway, back to the funsies for now.
We then took the same corner at a slow speed, but enough to put the cars into a slower skid. We learned to “shuffle steer,” which is something I had never heard of. You basically jerk the steering wheel back and forth pretty violently while following the curve, and we were able to keep the car in pretty darn good control. I don’t know that this would work in a fast skid, but it worked great in a slow skid.
Then… we did the acceleration skid. We got the car going only about 28 mph, then slammed the accelerator to the floor. That car spun around about three times, flew water up all around us, and the speedometer maxed out at 140 mph while pretty much going nowhere but around. Those tires were spinning like CRAZY. Once we hit some dry pavement, the car started to come to a stop with smoke billowing up from the tires. It was a good example how quickly a spin could occur if you accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Crazy.
Next we did some more quick reaction-type maneuvers around cones in the same cars. A light would come on telling us whether to turn right or left at the last second before a “hazard,” or cones in this case. (Poor cones!) Then we took the same course, but deciding which way we wanted to turn ahead of time. It was SO much easier to make the maneuver when you already knew which way you wanted to turn. Makes sense… and proves how important it is to pay attention, and how much difference just a second or two can make! I unfortunately hit the “Little Johnny” cone a couple of times when we did this exercise with no ABS and last-second turn direction. I tended to brake too long, making it impossible to steer around “Little Johnny.” Goes to show I hope I always have ABS, I’m going a safe speed, and paying attention!
Next up was trucks. First there’s the rig to test the ABS. We drove the truck at about 26 mph, or somewhere in there, and slammed on the brakes with the ABS turned off. We had to counter steer to keep the tractor and trailer straight, and that thing skidded quite a ways and we noted where we were finally came to a stop. Then we went again, but with the ABS on. We hardly had to counter steer, and the whole rig stopped in probably half of the time. Checking to be sure the ABS is working on our trucks is part of our federally-required pre-trip inspection… for good reason. So if the ABS light in your vehicle is lit up on your dashboard, don’t cover it up with electrical tape. Get it fixed. For reals. It’s pretty cool stuff, and seriously might keep you alive.
It was great to see the difference driving this truck with and without ABS, but in our little controlled environment, is was honestly kind of boring. Good, but boring. It got better, though. Next up was the bobtail, which is a truck without a trailer. The first time in this thing, Nicole was driving and I had the brake controls – yes, the passenger gets this little remote-control to press in the brakes. It’s just another fun part of this whole experience. We did as directed over the radio by our instructor – Nicole jerked the steering wheel and I pressed the brake buttons. That tractor went into a pretty fun spin! I think it spun around once or twice with water splashing up all around us. It was fun, but then we had to do the same maneuver, but counter steer out of the spin. Going only about 25ish mph, it’s possible, but can be tough. If you ever see just a tractor driving on the highway in poor weather conditions, try not to hang close by them for too long. Just in case.
Then the best part. We got into the tractor and trailer with no ABS on. When I drove, I was pretty proud that I was able to keep the trailer in pretty good control with counter steering. This is all at a pretty low speed, though. I believe the point is to see how much can happen even at such low speeds. We just have to keep our vehicles in control at all times, and in some cases, we need to even stop and let the weather pass. It’s been said several times, “no load is worth your life.” Good mantra. Anyway, I keep getting sidetracked with the serious stuff. After a couple of runs with this rig and getting a feel for how the trailer kicks out behind us and how hard we sometimes need to counter steer to keep it straight, we did the final maneuver.
This final maneuver is called the “wipeout.” This is NOT what you want to have happen. Ever. We got the rig going about 26 mph, pulled the trailer brakes so just the tires in the very back of the trailer locked up. We learned that the locked-up wheels always want to take the lead, and it was certainly proven in this exercise. And not only did we pull the brakes on the trailer, we jerked the steering wheel hard to the left. The trailer brakes locked up causing the end of the trailer to kick around and jackknife beside us, then swing around the other way as the tractor came to a complete stop. The trailer wasn’t finished yet, though! It swung around and hit the other side of the tractor and pushed it with a great big “SLAM!” I was ready for it because I watched a couple of other students first. But if you weren’t expecting that, you’d most likely need to change your undies. In a real-life situation, this would be rather horrible.
Thankfully in this controlled environment, the trucks are set up so they can’t even fully jackknife. They have straps to stop the angle of the jackknife before it could possibly break the equipment or harm a driver or passenger. We still got a really good feel for what it might feel like, though. Again, it was super-fun in this situation, but once we’re all in the industry working for real, our trucks aren’t going to have the safety features these ones did, and we won’t have an instructor on the radio telling us when to brake, how to brake, when to steer, how to steer, and where to look. When we got done with our skid pad training, I was exhausted from adrenaline alone. After the couple of times spinning around or skidding out, I was nearly in tears from laughing so hard, and my hands were shaky. This was a good ol’ fun kind of adrenaline.
I learned so much from this, and I can only hope to God I never get into a situation in which I’ll need to use these techniques, but I’m sure glad I’ve got this experience! Once again, thanks FVTC! If you ever think about going to school for truck driving, just don’t think. Come here!
…now if only we can convince our instructors for one more go with those police cars!
Tonight I love doing donuts. I could’ve done that all day long!