Fast feedback can save your life

Unlike the 93% of drivers in the US who believe they are above -average in terms of driving skill, I am a little more self-aware. I would not claim to be an above average driver. Despite having had a driving licence for 16 years now, I have lived in Copenhagen for the last five years — so I haven’t had the need to drive much at all. Like most Danes, a bicycle has been my primary mode of transport, rain or shine, snow or sleet. Consequently, I am a little out of practice when it comes to the complex environment behind the wheel of a car.

I have just come back from Boston, where I have been working with a client in Lexington, MA. Unlike Copenhagen, it’s a necessity to have a car to get around. Having had small cars all my life (my last car was a Peugeot 206) I decided to rent the smallest car that I could. I feel more in control when I drive a small car, and it makes parking a breeze. I left the rental car shop with a cute little Mazda 2. After a bit of struggle with Cindy (the GPS) I was enjoying being behind the wheel again and quickly remembered all the patterns we employ to help us in complex environments. I am also a more confident when I am driving alone. To me there is nothing more scary than being responsible for someone else’s life.

I had a few good days with my little Mazda, until my last day in Massachusetts. I left the office in Lexington at 5 pm thinking that I’d have plenty of time to get to the airport for my flight at 9pm.

Then things started going wrong. First, I got stuck in rush-hour traffic. Second, it started snowing quite hard snow, which not only slowed traffic down further, it affected visibility too. I was still calm and happy though, as I had added enough buffer to allow for these “known unknowns”.

My calmness didn’t last for long though. I come from a fairly warm climate, a city where it never snows. I haven’t developed the pattern recognition that comes from slipping tyres. As the snow got deeper I started to feel — for the first time — that there was something strange about how the steering wheel behaved at times. The accelerator felt weird too. I don’t have the tacit knowledge of how to deal with this situation. It was then that I noticed something on the dashboard of my Mazda. Something was flashing…


It became apparent that this light comes on to warn me whenever the wheels were slipping. At least I now had some visual cue to help me experiment with this new situation. Remembering advice from friends who did have experience, I tried using a lower gear and avoided any sudden braking or acceleration. Every time the symbol flashed I would ease off the accelerator or brake pedal and gently steer into the skid until the light went out, signaling that I had regained traction.

Perhaps in future, I will develop a more natural feel for driving in ice and snow. Until then, I will be grateful for the feedback signals that helped me stay on the road, avoid an accident and get me to the airport in the nick of time.

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