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Learning how to recover from a skid on Michigan's icy roads | Messages from the Mitten

Image of a person driving in the wintertime. Snow is visible through the front windshield.
If you are planning to head out in your car anytime this winter remember to avoid using cruise control, steer in the direction of a skid, accelerate and decelerate slowly and keep your car at a safe distance from other vehicles.

Driving during Michigan’s winters is not for the faint of heart. Icy conditions have led many drivers to skid into a frantic situation. Unfortunately, it’s not something we can fully avoid considering winter weather conditions can last months here.

As part of our series Messages from the Mitten, WKAR’s Michelle Jokisch Polo took a winter driving course to give you some quick tips on how to get to your destination without winding up stuck on the side of the road.

We’ve all been there. One moment you’re driving down an icy road minding your speed when suddenly, you feel your wheels turn and drift. While the safest way to avoid these sorts of scary situations is to stay home under a pile of blankets, I wanted to learn how to handle a skid when it happens.

Sergeant Pat Agema sits in the driver's seat of a Michigan State Police patrol and smiles at the camera while holding the steering wheel. Agema is a white man with glasses, gray buzzed hair. He is wearing a navy blue Michigan State Police uniform.
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Sergeant Pat Agema

So, I met up with one of the people in charge of the Michigan State Police Driving Program, Sergeant Pat Agema.

I hopped in his patrol car at the police training academy in Lansing for a ride on its track to learn how to maneuver a car during winter conditions.

It’s a cold December morning, but there’s no ice on the ground. Instead, we’re heading towards a skid pad police officers use to simulate tricky driving conditions.

One of the first things I ask Agema is what I can do if I lose control on the wheel.

"If it's an acceleration skid, release the accelerator. Don't push on the accelerator," he said. "If you're braking, then you're skidding, release that brake and then apply gentle application to the brake, gentle application of the accelerator and smooth steering inputs.”

A skid happens anytime there isn’t enough friction between a car’s tires and the road.

"Braking, acceleration, cornering and hydroplaning are the four types of skids," Agema adds.

When you’re driving and you feel your car slide try not to jerk the steering wheel back and forth.

I start to pick up more speed on the driving course, while Agema is in the passenger’s seat, and then it happens. My steering wheel shifts towards the left and my instincts tell me to try and brake. Agema reminds me to fight that urge.

"So we talk about looking and steering in the direction you want to go," he said. "When my vision changes, goes from this way, what do I want to do? I want to steer back towards that location. I want to go the direction I am looking.”

Our cars have a lot of different mechanisms that help us minimize some of the errors we make as we drive, through stability and traction control. But Agema says what we often don’t realize is how drastically decreased our car’s handling capabilities become during a snowy Michigan winter drive.

“You might have a late frost, but it can have a blizzard effect right away, right? So the traction of your vehicle can can be eradicated in a moment's notice." he said. "So the big thing is to slow down, give yourself more time when you're driving in the wintertime.”

Agema recommends keeping one car’s length for every 10 miles of speed between other cars. This is especially important when it's snowing.

“So, if you are following a vehicle, you're driving 60 miles an hour, that's six car lengths to give yourself a good opportunity to squeeze the brake, identify a hazard and slow down," Agema explains. "Now in wintertime you might even want to try farther.”

Most importantly Agema says to never text when driving.

“The average sent text takes about 4.6 seconds or five seconds, and if you close your eyes and you count — 1,001, 1,002, 1,003, 1,004, 1,005 — at 60 miles an hour, you're going 88 feet per second," he said. "So you traveled more than a football field...you just think about what can happen in that time."

If you are planning to head out in your car anytime this winter, remember to avoid using cruise control, steer in the direction of a skid, accelerate and decelerate slowly, and keep your car at a safe distance from other vehicles.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community.
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