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SKIING... Whistler Blackcomb Snow School


Training for Operators of 15-Passenger Vans
 
Vans and Safety

 

A few months ago we did an advanced driving school for a local cat-skiing company, with their 15-passenger vans. For those unfamiliar with that sort of operation, they use snow cats, instead of helicopters, to bring customers to high alpine areas, where there is plenty of fresh snow. The vans are used to pick people up in Whistler, drive south along the Sea to Sky highway, then negotiate a tricky dirt road to the main lodge. In the interest of education, we practised emergency braking, cornering techniques, skid correction, and much more. The trucks did fine; nothing burst into flames or rolled over. As with any vehicle, they must be operated in accordance with their dynamic capabilities. We have also done, and will continue with, training sessions for RMOW, which should serve to make parents more comfortable about the transportation of their children.

 

The Pemberton airport had a thick layer of ice on the taxiway that we use for driving events, making a perfect classroom. Most of the students were trained guides, so the group was used to technical courses, and they performed very well. Even though each of them had plenty of winter driving experience, they quickly realized there was a lot more to be learned. That stands as an interesting contrast to those motorists who assume that, because they have been driving for a while, there isnít any need for further education.

 

This past winter there was a fatal wreck, on a slippery New Brunswick highway, involving a high school basketball team on their way home from a match. Initial information suggests that the van fishtailed, the driver lost control, and the vehicle was hit by an oncoming truck. It is impossible to judge the situation accurately from a distance, including the operatorís level of training, and even attempting to do so seems horribly unkind. Nevertheless, the most likely cause, as with the vast majority of crashes, is driver error. It has been reported that the van was equipped with all-season as opposed to high quality winter tires. That means at least 30% less traction, for both cornering and braking.

 

Please note that the following does not necessarily apply if there was a mechanical failure, such as a tire coming apart, a wheel falling off, or any other truly exceptional circumstances. When a vehicle fishtails, slides first one way and then the other, it means the driver was both mentally and physically behind in dealing with events. There should be only one skid, a correction, the pause or time it takes for the sliding tires to regain traction, and a smooth recovery back to the intended direction of travel. Of course this takes training. Very few people will figure out a truly sophisticated level of skid control on their own. Is it worth doing this training? Yes. Can we teach good judgement? Sort of. Any reasonably intelligent person, who is well balanced emotionally, will soon appreciate that there are distinct limits to what a vehicle can do, and that this boundary is best given a safe margin. Beyond that, this reasoning individual will understand that technique is a better tool for dealing with a crisis than random acts, optimism, or enthusiasm.

 

There is no fun in writing an article of this sort. Maybe our brave new world will include computer-controlled vehicles, so driver error will become a thing of the past. Then we will be able to sue the software engineers on behalf of those who did not make it home. Until that day, it would make a lot of sense to encourage a far higher standard of driver training, as well as skill development, than what is currently required to get a licence. It is worth remembering that in a recent flying incident, where an Air Canada flight suffered what may have been a turbulence-induced loss of control, the computer didnít fix the problem. Skilled pilots did.


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