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Nashville Scene Slip-Slidin' Away

SPUTES makes the best pucks on icy roads

By Walter Jowers

JANUARY 19, 1999:  We've got two kinds of winter drivers in our part of the world: People who don't know how to drive in ice and snow, and people who think they know how to drive in ice and snow, but can't. Both groups include Yankee transplants who swear to God that they could drive anywhere over a foot-thick coating of black ice, if only the native Southerners would get out of their way.

In the last few years, winter driving has gotten even worse around here, because now we've got an army of drivers who think nothing can dislodge their mighty sport/utility vehicles (SPUTES) when the road turns to rink.

SPUTE drivers, listen to me: On ice, your machine is a puck, with no more traction than a slick-tired Yugo.

Speaking of winter SPUTE wrecks, Ron Wulff, a California Highway Patrol public affairs officer, told the Sierra Sun: "Most of the vehicles that we find on their sides or roofs are four-wheel-drive sport/utility vehicles, which makes me think that the drivers of those cars aren't realizing the limitations of their vehicles."

Wulff went on to recount the tale of a CHP officer who tried to help a SPUTE driver keep his vehicle from sliding off an embankment. As the officer was doing his good deed, he found that the driver hadn't engaged his four-wheel drive, and didn't even know how to engage his four-wheel drive. The guy had owned the vehicle for four years and had yet to push the little button on the dash labeled "four-wheel drive."

A couple of years ago, our little family took a summer vacation in Wisconsin's North Woods. One fine day, the folks in the cabin next door had a visitor, who drove up in a Humvee, a real enough government-certified war-fighting four-wheel-drive machine. When it comes to SPUTES, Humvees are the reigning silverback gorillas--low, heavy, and ready to rumble.

Right after lunch, the visitor asked in a high nasal voice, "Who wansta ride in the Humvee?" He got about a half-dozen takers, and they headed off toward the woods, engine purring and riders squealing. We Jowerses stood on the bank and watched.

The Humvee revelers bounced along for about a hundred yards, then tried to drive across a creek, which was no more than about two feet wide. Well, the creek ate the Humvee like a snake eats a rat. In the first attack-gulp, it took the underbelly and everything up to the door frames. Once it knew it had its prey, the creek took its time swallowing. There was time enough for the Humvee driver and his friends to run a cable from the Humvee's front-bumper winch over to a creekside tree. There was time enough to activate the winch, and hear the big sucking sound as the tree came up by its roots. "It's some kind of queer food chain," I said to wife Brenda and daughter Jess. "The creeks eats the Humvee, the Humvee eats the tree. Where will it end?"

The Humvee folk made a desperate call for the North Woods' biggest tow truck, which arrived just as the Humvee seats were sinking into the creek mud.

"Daddy," said daughter Jess, "I think it's going to end when the tow truck eats the Humvee."

"Nah," I said, "It'll end when the dumbass Humvee driver eats his deductible."

But back to winter driving. On a slick surface, a four-wheel-drive vehicle does have an advantage over a two-wheel-drive vehicle, but only when it comes to accelerating. That's great when it comes to getting unstuck in a cornfield. It even helps the vehicle get moving when there's ice on the ground.

But four-wheel drive only helps with the going part. When there's snow or ice on the ground, the stopping part becomes more important. Check these numbers, also from the Sierra Sun: On dry pavement, at 20 miles per hour, a typical vehicle can stop in about 17 feet. On glare ice, that vehicle takes 149 feet to stop. Put snow tires on it, and the stopping distance actually gets a little longer--151 feet. Put studded tires on the craft, and it'll stop in 120 feet. With chains, it'll stop in about 75 feet. SPUTES won't stop a bit quicker. If anything, they'll slide a little further than the average vehicle because of their greater mass.

Four-wheel-drive vehicles also have no advantage when it comes to steering. They don't turn a bit quicker, and they don't hold the road a bit better, than two-wheel-drive vehicles.

Of course, SPUTES aren't a bit worse, stability-wise, than two-wheel-drive vehicles. If there are more SPUTES turned dirty-side-up this time of year, it's not because the vehicles themselves have mechanical limitations. It's because they have drivers who think they can defy the laws of physics. People want to be able to drive on ice, so they think if they buy the right vehicle, they can drive on ice.

SPUTES have been cursed with what I call The Outgro Factor. Outgro was a product that claimed to cure the pain of ingrown toenails. On the Outgro TV ads, the narrator chirped merrily, "Outgro relieves pain without affecting the growth, shape, or position of the nail." In other words, Outgro was a local anesthetic. It didn't cure ingrown toenails. It didn't make anything "Gro Out." It simply masked the pain. In the Outgro tradition, SPUTES mask the natural and appropriate fears of people who want to drive on ice.

SPUTE drivers, take it slow. Your vehicles aren't all that special.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nashscene.com>, or you can e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.

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