Guns, Cars 'n' Tits

Guns, Cars 'n' Tits
Late Braking, Fast Laps and Other Life Lessons

Rob Zacny | 14 Oct 2008 13:11
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The importance of that last point dawned on me last winter, when every morning I got in my Camry and joined the long lines of salt-dusted cars heading north to Green Bay with engines cold, tires frozen and drivers bleary-eyed from too little sleep. Once the winter snows came in earnest and the temperature stayed below freezing for weeks on end, I started to notice that my northeastern Wisconsin commute was one of the most dangerous routes I'd ever traveled - videogames included.

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It never ceases to amaze me that so many of the people who live and work in this state are confounded by the weather in which they take such grim pride. Each day I would pass at least a half-dozen cars strewn across ditches and medians. Some would be half-buried in snow like dead Arctic explorers, their bodies to be recovered after the spring thaw but, for the moment, given a roadside grave marking of blaze-orange State Police tags.

Those were the good days. In blizzard conditions, things got considerably worse. The road disappeared under a gray-white slurry of snow, ice and grit, denying cars much-needed traction with the asphalt. Yet drivers around me would continue to drive at 70 miles per hour under the presumption that physics were no match for their sheer determination. They would proceed in this manner until suddenly diving into the nearest snow bank, where they would sit with bewildered expressions that asked, How on earth could an icy road could be so slippery?

On one particularly ugly day, the kind where you promise yourself that if you make it home you'll never again be so stupid as to leave it, I came closer than I've ever been to a major accident. I was returning from work, following a white minivan in the right lane; the passing lane was so clogged with snow that almost nobody was using it. As we approached a gentle dogleg right-hander, the van in front of me simply lost control. Its rear end swung out to the left and it continued to slide down the highway in a sideways skid, a white wall approaching the front of my car at 30 miles per hour.

Without single conscious thought, I lifted off the gas and nudged the car into the passing lane, feeling the handling slacken as the car surfed onto the snow. I narrowly cleared the van's tail, helped by the fact that it was now careening headlong off the highway. In my rear view I watched as the car behind me slammed into a snow bank while another barely managed to pull onto the right shoulder. That's when my heart started to pound.

A panic reflex would have been to slam on the brakes, thereby broadsiding the van at 50 miles an hour before getting clipped from behind and possibly spun into more traffic. I knew that was a mistake without thinking, because I had made it before, back when I was trying to figure out how to drive an F1 racer in Ubisoft's F1 Racing Simulation. In that game, hitting the brakes hardly ever solved anything, and cars loved nothing more than to slide out from under their driver's control. Through repeated trial and error, it taught me the correct way to handle a car that was losing its grip on the road. The game was difficult, churlish and more than a little sadistic. But on an icy road in the middle of a snowstorm, it helped me avoid being caught in a high-speed pileup.

That night, I pulled into my driveway grateful. All that time pretending to be a race car driver wasn't wasted after all.

Rob Zacny would find it ironic, but not really that funny, if he had his first car accident after writing this article. Tell him he's just being superstitious at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.

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