There’s a special type of hell involved in winter driving in Anchorage. I’ve worked pretty hard to try to overcome it, but tonight I almost met my match. After a sketchy history in college, I haven’t been in a car wreck since 1999, and not one that has been in my hands for 18 years – that streak almost …. ALMOST … Ended tonight.
Winter time beats the heck out of the road. Of one, roads are more likely to get ruts. The road beds are pretty soft, and the heavy traffic creates nice little groves everywhere. When snow starts to fall these ruts fill nicely with ice and then cover with snow. Sometimes they don’t ice up, but ruts can still form from the buildup of snow on either side of the tire lines. If that isn’t bad enough, the snow/ice on the road with constant plowing remove the lines keeping the lanes separate. For the most part the city does a good job of clearing roads here – but that sure didn’t help me today.
I was driving home from curling, a route that takes me along a one-way three lane road (C Street for you locals). From where the curling club, the ride through downtown is extra bad as far as seeing what lanes your in. Tonight was almost a free for all. I guessed one and three others guessed differently. What should be room for four wide seemed like two groups of two. It clears up right after downtown but one car especially was way off – straddling two lanes and forcing the rest of us to maneuver around him. Actually, this guy helped me out in hindsight.
I was approaching an intersection in Midtown (C & Fireweed) pretty well in control of my speed and car, but guessing I could see a yellow light I slowed some (in this town every light is red). Wanting to not be in trouble with the guy straddling lanes, I edged myself closer to the other side to my left – across a small patch of snow and ice to another groove. While I’m not sure, I am guessing I had my foot on the brake, because nearly immediately on hitting that patch my left side (on the ice) was going faster than on my right (on pavement).
Within 10 feet my car was no longer going straight but at a 45 degree angle down C Street; and I was in trouble.
My car has a traction warning alert, as soon as it feels like the wheels aren’t turning the way they should it starts beeping. Things happened so quickly that the alert didn’t go off until I already knew I was in trouble. I could feel the tires bounce from going sideways, but could feel them trying to grip the road correctly. I really though the car would flip at the moment – I was sure of it, and seemed to have the time to be sure of the result.
But the tires gripped, and my momentum was no longer heading down C Street but now angled. If that guy was not straddling the lanes he would have been trying to avoid me in the right lane. Instead there was open space for me to twist and turn until the full grip to the ground happened.
Then the next problem came, I was turning into the traffic stopped on Fireweed at the intersection and if I didn’t straighten I was heading right for the innocent motorists. Already I was thinking how the they would react, if they would think I was driving like an idiot to hit stopped cars, even wondering where I kept my insurance information.
The tires grabbed again, and again I was lucky that those stopped at the intersection were back a good ten feet from the edge of the intersection. Instead of aiming for the stopped cars, the was left heading towards a curb, a parking lot, and safety. Because the snow was still piled at the curb, I bounced up it easily without bumping hard into anything. And just enough to come to a stop.
I wasn’t hurt. The car wasn’t hurt. No one else was hurt. As far as I could tell, no one even changed their driving pattern around me. But it must have looked like a wild ride. I was nearly sidewards, straighten out facing a bad direction, then leaped into a parking lot. In all, the time I spent from when I touched the ice to coming to a stop is nothing more than 5 seconds. It started just at the entrance of the intersection and ended just past it (though across two lanes and over a curb). There was time enough for me to think through the result, at each twist I kept thinking how I was going to deal with the consequences, and even to wonder if I really could have kept this from happening.
As I was sitting in that parking lot to try to figure out what happened, I immediately started trying to process what happened – and some of the realizations made me feel good. Things may move slow during times like that, but what wins is what your reactions and habits will do. When the spin started to happen, I took my feet off of all the pedals like you’re supposed to. I didn’t notice it, but I realized afterwards that I didn’t feel my anti-lock breaks (in my car, the brake pedal would have rumbled, and I didn’t feel that), and hitting the accelerator would have never allowed me to stop as fast as I did. I also realized that the only way I could have avoided the stopped cars or hopped the curb was if I turned into the spin like your supposed to. The turns, however, weren’t overreactions. I didn’t over steer, just tried to maintain my direction. Enough driver training and suggestions in winter travel tell you that when things start to slip, you have to let the wheels do their thing until they find the road – steer to hard, hit a pedal too hard, and you just make the tires want to continue to skid. That didn’t happen, and I let the car right itself.
With the ride over, I just sat there stunned for a couple seconds. As one car turned in front of me, two younger kids looked over my way, caught my eye, and pumped a fist … there actions meant one thing: “That was Awesome!” Yeah … awesome … but not worth doing again.
I go to bed now after a rough day … the pup gave me a shinner tonight too, happy puppy bouncing too hard and headbutted me good. But I will leave you with a tune – my favorite song about a car accident.