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The “Oh S**t” Moment Behind The Wheel: What’s Yours?

Posted in Cars, Crashes, driving, General, Racing, Safety by Kurt Ernst | September 25th, 2010 | 6 Responses |

A recent survey showed that teen drivers don’t think that texting while driving is dangerous, at least not on the level of drinking and driving. A big reason for this, in my opinion, is lack of experience behind the wheel. Until you’ve been in a situation where the fertilizer-hits-the-roatary-oscillator behind the wheel, you really don’t have a concept of how quickly things can go bad. Get distracted at speed, even for a second or two, and you may not have the time, distance or driving skills necessary to avoid a major accident.

So here’s the deal: I’ll kick this off by giving you my biggest “oh shit” moment behind the wheel, then you spill yours. I suspect the common theme will be that things went from just fine to not fine at all before you really had a chance to react. Prove me right or prove me wrong, but I’d love to hear your story.

Years ago I was club racing in the SCCA, specifically in Improved Touring. My job had me on the road for about 3 weeks out of the month, and what little free time I did have was spent working with a local driving school. I’d started out doing marketing and promotion for them, but worked my way up into assisting at track days and showing clients the line around the track we used. It didn’t pay, but it did give me free track time.

Fast forward to a particular race at an old Army airfield, The track was high-speed, primarily because it consisted of long runways linked by blind, constant radius corners. The first few laps were a bit puckering, since Turn One was a blind entry and you took it flat out. After the end of the morning practice, I’d worked out my line and was ready for qualifying.

After I was waved onto the track, I used the first lap to get some heat in the tires and fine tune my line around the track. For lap two I went hammer down, and was having a great drive until I accelerated down the back straight. Maximum velocity in my ITB prepped, 2.0 liter Ford Pinto was around 110 miles per hour, and I was somewhere in that neighborhood when I realized that I was catching one of our clients on the track. Odd, because he was driving a Mazda RX-7 Turbo and I was driving a Pinto.

BMW 2002s were the terrors of the ITB class.

That fraction-of-a-second distraction was all it took for me to miss my braking marker. No problem I thought, I’ll just go a bit deeper in the corner and brake a little harder. My strategy probably would have worked fine if there were less marbles (gravel, bits of rubber, etc.) on the track; instead, my car swapped ends at about 85 mph. Opposite lock did nothing but increase the severity of the spin, and I realized I wasn’t going to save it. I pulled my hands from the wheel, floored the clutch and mashed the brakes. As the car slid off the track and into the loose dirt of the infield, I was fine until the outside wheels dug into the soil. When they did, the car went up on the outside two wheels and slid though the dirt, scrubbing off speed and throwing an enormous roostertail of dirt into the sky. I waited for the pending rollover as I shut down the car and covered the release mechanism of the harness with my free hand. The car never flipped, but I did enjoy a 45 degree view of the horizon for longer than I care to think about. In the driver’s meeting, several competitors told me, “Dude, I saw the entire underside of your car”. Good times.

I walked away without injury and a quick trip to the pits put the car back to right, but the outcome could have been much different. My ITB car had a stout roll cage, I was wearing a five point harness and a Nomex suit, and the car was equipped with a fire extinguisher. In a street car, with no added safety gear, a rollover isn’t something I’d care to participate in.

So what did I learn? At those speeds, even an experienced driver has very little chance of recovery from a mistake, unless you’ve got a lot of room to work things out. That’s my “oh shit” moment, so now let’s hear yours.

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6 Responses

  1. BobK says:

    Pulling onto RT 93 south in my 92 Honda Prelude when the hood flew up covering the entire windshield. Luckily at 1am not many cars were on the road and I was able to pull safely to the side.

  2. Canrith says:

    Driving an 04′ Tahoe, I hit a strip of black ice nearing the bottom of a severe grade off ramp that leads to a road with a dead drop of 200 ft, with a slight guardrail being all that stands in-between road and ravine. Ended up doing a 540 with a fully loaded coal truck heading toward my barely stopped vehicle. Ended up having to spin back to parallel with the road to avoid a crash. In the end everything worked out, but that was a stark reminder of how fast things can go bad, even if you are paying attention.

  3. Humanparody says:

    I floored it coming around a turn and went flying through an S-curve at 80+ miles an hour and nearly lost it. This was bad for two reasons: 1), I didn’t have a license, and 2), I didn’t have insurance.

  4. Kurt says:

    Canrith, I had a black ice “oh shit” moment as well. Driving a ’97 Ranger pickup in freezing rain; the truck is in 4wd high and I tap the brakes coming down a hill. The back end starts to come around, but I catch it; still, the road is a solid sheet of ice, and I’ve got zero ability to steer quickly or brake. There’s a full sized dumptruck stopped in front of me, turning left, and I’ve got no room to go around the truck on the right.

    Just as I was about to take my hands off the wheel and brace for impact, the dump truck began its turn. I had just enough room to get around on the right, and missed taking off my driver side mirror by inches.

    Ironically, I got rear-ended by another driver about five miles later.

  5. 68SportFury says:

    Amazingly enough, my “Oh, shit” moment involved black ice at low speed. I was driving home from a friend’s house in January 1999. There had been some mixed precipitation earlier in the evening, but the main roads were just wet.
    I turned onto my street and was traveling slowly down the hill–and I mean slowly–I was going less than 20 mph and may have been coasting (manual transmission). I noticed a car at the curb, lights on, pointing in my direction. I decided to give him a little extra room in case he opened a door suddenly.
    I turned the wheel maybe ten degrees and instantly lost traction. Unbeknownst to me, I’d turned off a road that was just wet onto one that was coated with black ice. Into a light pole I went, not hard enough to fire the airbag, but hard enough to do about $3000 in damage to the nose of my ’91 Daytona.
    It’s the only claim I’ve had to make against my own car insurance in 30 years behind the wheel.
    Then I was driving to work two days later and discovered that the hood that had stayed down just fine while driving around town at sub-40-mph speeds wasn’t latched tightly enough to stay down at 55 with a headwind. THAT was fun, too. Sprung both hinges and had to remove the hood to drive to the body shop.

    That whole experience even beats the time I avoided T-boning a crashing car on the interstate, only to get rear-ended by someone with slower reflexes.

  6. Waldo says:

    I was driving from my farm in my moms 99 4runner that has already been rolled (not by me i swear) and it was a gravel road and they just paved it. Me in my young wisdom had the cruise control on and I went up a hill goin 70 mph (i was 17 speed is awesome when your young and dumb) and the cruise control basically floored it and the backend swung to the side, I was lucky enough to get it back but the backend going back and forth up a hill on gravel goin 70 is not fun at all….needless to say i dont use cruise control on gravel