Letter to the Editor: Downshifting can avoid unnecessary braking
December 12, 2013
The night after Thanksgiving 27 years ago, I received a great hands-on winter driving lesson which has helped me many times in the years since.
While driving Westbound I-80 in heavy snow down the Whitmore Grade near Blue Canyon, I came upon a RV and a truck that had collided and skidded to a stop 90 degrees to the direction of travel, effectively blocking both lanes.
My brief application of brakes only put me into a skid. Further application of brakes would have put me sliding into one of the vehicles or, worse yet, the people who had decided to walk around the RV.
Rather than continue braking, I hit the throttle as I was alongside the truck and was able to steer through a narrow gap behind the truck and in front of and around the RV and its owners.
What did I learn? Braking while traveling downhill in snowy conditions (or any condition) could be the last thing a driver wants to do. Braking puts negative control on a vehicle. The application of gentle throttle applies positive control to a vehicle.
By shifting to a lower gear before the vehicle picks up speed and using engine compression to slow the vehicle, the driver often coasts downhill at a perfect speed. If the vehicle is traveling too slow, or if the vehicle begins to lose traction, a small application of throttle is often enough to correct the situation.
If brakes do become necessary, the amount and duration of braking required is much less than it would have been at a higher speed. Whether driving a standard or automatic transmission, proactive downshifting on our heavily-traveled mountainous roads, such as Northwoods Boulevard, the Glenshire S-turn, Brockway Summit, Dollar Point, etc., can be done in all weather conditions in order to prolong the life of your car's brakes.
More importantly, it can help maintain positive control of the vehicle, especially in slippery winter conditions. Good luck, and safe driving.