On rural highways there are three kinds of drivers: Some act like it’s the Autobahn with no rules or speed limits. Some poke along, rubbernecking at their neighbors’ places while mentally calculating crop yields. And some drive the speed limit — exactly the speed limit, with minor variations as the vehicle climbs and descends hills.
Fifty years ago that third group was probably cruising around the courthouse square on Saturday nights. Now those bad boys (and many more of us) set the cruise control to avoid speeding tickets. I might occasionally set mine a tad higher than the posted speed limit. With cruise on, my gas mileage improves and my short legs are more relaxed than when I’m stretched out to reach the accelerator.
On the whole, cruise control is a blessing out here where every drive is a long drive. But when the angel on your shoulder whispers, “Turn it off” it’s best to listen.
When there’s ice or slush on the road, cruise control can cause problems that are more expensive than a speeding ticket and have longer-lasting consequences. Wet pavement, wildlife, spilled grain and other unexpected road hazards can be just as dangerous when you hit them with cruise on.
It can all get even worse if you brake to cancel the cruise.
Let’s say you’re cruising along on dry pavement free of hazards, and you know every hill and curve on the road. You set the cruise to establish a steady speed. Except it’s not always steady. When you climb a steep hill, for example, the vehicle slows down. When it slows below the speed you programmed it to maintain, the cruise automatically feeds some gas to the engine. And there you are, cresting the hill a bit faster than you intended when that family of wild turkeys decides to cross the road.
Or suppose you’re coming down that hill. Now gravity is goosing your vehicle to a speed that exceeds what you intended. The least of your problems is the driver behind cursing you for accelerating in the only passing zone for miles. Because in many vehicles, the cruise control will apply the brakes when speed exceeds the setting.
Those who grew up doing donuts in the snow know what happens when you combine braking with acceleration. That was fun back in the day (before security cameras) if your high school parking lot was big enough. It’s not so fun when the bottom of that hill has a patch of ice. Or standing water. Or the big buck that eluded you during deer season.
And then there are the curves. In my area, road crews do an amazing job of clearing snow from the highways. But they can’t do it all at once. So they work to clear the lanes first. The shoulders outside the fog line get cleared between storms. In the meantime, with a bit of sun and changing temperatures, you can have snow, slush, ice or standing water creep back over the fog line into the lane(s). That makes unexpected acceleration or braking from cruise control really dangerous. Even without acceleration or braking, catching slop with one tire because you entered a curve at cruising speed can put you upside down in a ditch faster than that angel on your shoulder can arrange a soft landing.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) can’t help you much then, either. In the split second when your vehicle is trying to assess and counteract loss of traction, it’s also trying to maintain speed. Good luck with those lightning reflexes that help you switch off your cruise control in time. Assuming you can override the instinct to tap the brake.
The one thing you can control is turning off the cruise in anticipation of adverse road conditions. Okay, that may not help much when the pavement is bone dry: You just never know when wildlife is going to jump out at you. But you can anticipate when roads may be wet and slippery.
So when that angel on your shoulder whispers, please listen and turn off your cruise control. Or the next sound you hear might be the wail of sirens.
Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural Langlade County, Wisconsin.