The “snomageddon” in and around Atlanta earlier this week has us northerners wondering what southerners would do in a real snow storm. A mere 1 to 2 inches of freezing moisture shut down the entire metropolitan area, trapping and stranding thousands of motorists on area freeways.

But wait – ice was a major part of it, and if pavement is black-ice slick there’s not much anyone can do.

What’s worse is that some truckers came to grief in it, too. Many were stranded but some were among the more than 1,200 traffic accidents reported in the hours after the snow began falling early Tuesday afternoon. And nothing quite blocks a highway like a semi that’s come to rest at right angles to the travel lanes.

Check that tractor-trailer completely blocking all five lanes on this expressway, in a scene from the CBS Evening News. Faint skid marks under the trailer suggest it came over the median after skidding, luckily not hitting anything else.

Was the driver standing on his brakes during the slide, hoping the ABS would help him control the vehicle? Or did he stay off the pedal, praying that rolling wheels would help him recover?

Either way, it didn’t work. On serious ice, there’s not much a driver can do but slow down and drift to a stop until conditions improve.

Through the tractor-trailer gap we can catch a glimpse of a wrecker, whose operator is likely preparing to pull or winch the tractor so it faces down road and it can get moving again, and out of the way of all those cars and small trucks.

This rig didn’t jackknife, but in recent weeks, many others in mishaps elsewhere in the country did, twisting into right angles before they came to rest, sometimes colliding with other tractor-trailers.

All this reminds me of some anti-jackknife training I got about 25 years ago, at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis. With grant money, instructors at the school’s truck driver training program set up a large concrete skid pad that could be easily wetted down. Then students, who were instructed beforehand on what to do, ventured out and literally tried their hands at it. I was one of ‘em.

“A skidding wheel wants to lead,” the chief instructor had told us in a classroom, demonstrating with toy tractor-trailers whose tiny wheels were taped and the rigs sent down an inclined wooden chute. First the trailer wheels were secured to show how the trailer swings out to either side, sometimes widely, its rear end trying to pass the tractor.

Then the tractor’s drive wheels were taped, and its axle slid to the left or right, pulling the trailer’s nose with it, again trying to get around to the front because skidding wheels want to lead. That type of jackknife is more common.

Did the toy demo really represent what happens with a full-size rig? Yes.

Out on the skid pad, the instructor in the passenger seat used special controls to first lock the trailer’s brakes, and sure enough, when the tractor was slowing, the trailer’s rear end began swinging out. Releasing its brakes straightened the rig. Then he locked the brakes on the drive axle, and yup, it swung to the side with only light braking applied to the steer axle.

The key to controlling those two types of jackknifes, he said, was to avoid braking so wheels keep rolling and the rig remains controllable. With the drive-axle event, we were also taught to "steer the tractor into the skid."

That was not news to anyone who’s originally learned to drive up North, where we had “steer in the direction of the skid” beaten into our young heads. What was surprising is that it works with a tractor-trailer just as it does with a car.

It worked on a skid pad, that is, but in a real emergency when things happen in a few seconds, a driver might not be able to remember what he’s supposed to do or to react quickly enough to do it.

Over the years, by instinct I’ve pumped the brake pedal when stopping became difficult in snow, ice or rain – and now hold down the pedal and let the anti-lock braking system pump the brakes for me – but steering just-so can become impossible.

A few years ago I ran a car into a country ditch when I went around a curve too fast and the car’s rear end began fishtailing. I couldn’t spin the wheel fast enough to keep up, and the front end plowed right into the abyss, which fortunately wasn’t bottomless.

I was glad I wasn’t pulling a trailer. But if I had been, I’d have been going slower and the skid wouldn’t have started in the first place.

The subsequent thaw got everyone in Atlanta rolling, and now we can hope that authorities – and motorists and truck drivers – will prepare better for the next snow-and-ice storm.


Tom Berg
Tom Berg

Tom Berg

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

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Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

View Bio