Teach them not to panic

Have you ever had a driver decide that when all else fails, he should just stop the vehicle as quickly as he possibly can? Did this action lead to a desirable result? Often, the answer is no.

The Michigan Center for Decision Driving addresses this situation with a one-day course for drivers that combines classroom study with on-the-track practice. “Drivers learn that when unexpected things happen on the road, we can’t just slam on the brakes,” says Adonna Briske, one of the center’s instructors. “They come away with many lessons they would never have learned otherwise.”

Briske is a former driver with more than 24 years on the road. She says that drivers like the course, even when attending more than once a year, and provided examples of letters written to thank the instructors. Often, as she describes dangerous driving situations and what to do about them, “light bulbs come on in the drivers’ minds,” she says.

At the core of the curriculum is the concept that, if drivers learn appropriate reactions to what are normally panic situations, many crashes can be prevented or at least made much less severe. Tied into that, of course, are preventive tactics that avoid panic situations in the first place. On-the-track and skid pad practice teach drivers to overcome their panic and react intelligently.

One core value taught is “threshold braking.” Drivers learn that you only need a small fraction of that 120 psi in the air tanks to get the right stopping force. “On a slick road, 10 psi can cause a jackknife. So, we teach them they need to borrow only a little of that air.”

They learn that when in a panic stop to depress the clutch first so the engine won’t stall, and they’ll have full steering. Then, they learn to keep their heel on the floor, as full-footed braking guarantees lockup. They learn there is no time to downshift. And, they learn that jackknife, even just trailer swing, cannot be prevented by reaching for the trailer valve and putting more pressure on. That’s one of those dangerous myths. The trick is to brake at the threshold of lockup, and if the wheels do lock, to back off just enough to get them turning again. Doing that in a panic takes some practice, which they get at the center.

Is this an old-fashioned lesson in an era of ABS? No, counters Briske. How about when you don’t have ABS, the most common situation on the trailer, or if it’s just broken on either part of the combination?

Drivers learn that, on slick roads, putting on the engine brake at maximum settings, or using a lot of throttle, can cause a jackknife. They also learn that when suddenly coming upon a stopped vehicle, as when it emerges from fog or around a corner, there’s normally a much greater chance of steering around it without braking than stopping safely, even though our instincts tell us to slam on the brakes. They even learn an unusual sawing technique that maximizes contact patch size and steer axle tire adhesion in tight corners, especially on slick roads.

And drivers learn about staying out of tight situations. Briske says, “It’s amazing how far you travel before you even react and turn the wheel when something has happened ahead of you. It takes 1.5 seconds to perceive and react. At 60 mph you travel 135 feet before you turn the wheel; at 80 mph, it’s 180 feet.” The center drums this lesson into drivers’ minds by exposing them to the need to choose a lane shift to the right or left when one of two traffic lights turns green ahead of them. They try it first at 20 mph, then at 22 mph and 24 mph. They are always astounded at the difference just 4 mph makes.

The center is operated as a service to the industry by Eaton Corp., with its partner, the Michigan Center for Truck Safety. Michigan drivers can attend for only $40. The rate for out-of state drivers is $175 dollars, but when sending many drivers at once, discounts apply.
Fleets can arrange for classes by calling Donna Baker at (800) 325-6733.