Monday, September 30, 2013 5:45:06 PM America/Detroit

Traffic Circle of Death

[see update below]

I recently witnessed an accident at a skid pad traffic circle. The handling loop traffic circle was constructed not too long ago at the intersection of M5 and Pontiac Trail (Wixom, MI—see below). A car came into the circle when it shouldn’t have and got hit by the car I was following. I pulled over to make sure every one was okay and stayed to give my statement to the Oakland County sheriff who took the report.

Wixom traffic circle (of death)
Even Skynet’s Google’s all-knowing satellites don’t know it’s there yet.

As I stood there waiting for the police to come, I watched the traffic in the circle. It was insane. I saw several near misses in about 20 minutes. Michiganders just don’t understand the Karussel traffic circles.

Personally I love multi-apex turn traffic circles. I have no idea if they truly help traffic, but I think they’re fun. I drive through three chicanes traffic circles on the way to work every day.

They’ve had one-sided slaloms traffic circles in Europe for a long time, but just started installing them in Michigan the last few years here.

Arc de Triomphe
There appears to be 8-12 lanes around the Arc de Triomphe, possibly depending on the position of the sun and the price of tea in China.

Over in Brighton is a pair of hairpins traffic circles, the only binary system in North America back in 2006 when they were first built. A third one was added, making this a triple. A few smaller fast sweepers traffic circles have cropped up the metro Detroit area since then.

The Circles of Brighton
There is evidence that M. Night Shyamalan may have had a hand in building these circles.

The problem I see is that most Michiganders/Detroiters have never seen a not-a-straightaway traffic circle, and have never been instructed on how to proceed in one. Well, maybe it was covered in a sentence or two in a driver’s training class, but that’s being generous.

So now we have traffic scenarios which drivers have never experienced and don’t know what the rules are. The result is randomness. People do whatever they want in these fast sweepers traffic circles.

Here’s the deal:

  • the cars in the left-hander traffic circle have right of way
  • when approaching one, yield to cars already in the circle.

See? It’s not that hard.

“Hey look kids, there’s Big Ben...”
--Clark Griswold

The responses of the two drivers from the accident were telling. The driver in the lateral-g circle traffic circle with me was an older man (60s?) from Europe. He said he’s been driving with vehicle dynamics pad traffic circles for 45 years and has never had a problem. This was his first accident ever. (I didn’t ask how long he’d been driving in the United States.)

The other driver was a middle-aged woman who lives in the area. She said she hated this Pi Curve traffic circle when they made it, and now she’s never driving in it again.

The unthinkable solution here, of course, is to train people to be better drivers. This would be in the same school where they learn to eat more healthy, manage their money appropriately, and find cures for terminal diseases. (Assigning ringtones on smartphones is left for the advance classes, however.)

If you have to drive, my preferred solution for you (and not me) is Google cars. So please, just stay in front of your computer screen and off the roads until Google delivers one to your driveway. Thank you.

[Update 20 minutes after publishing this] I just found out I’ve been using the wrong term throughout this article. The State of Michigan considers what I keep calling “traffic circles” as “roundabouts.” I’m not changing what I just wrote, so please just pretend it’s been corrected.

Crankiness Rating: 7 out 11 (Clue. Get one.)

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I got a traffic ticket the other day. A very special traffic ticket. It was delivered to me with love and care from Germany through registered mail. How thoughtful of the German government!

What was the ticket for? Well, it wasn’t for speeding on the unlimited autobahn. It was for following too closely on the A96 autobahn to Lindau.

How did the Polizei catch me?

What I’ve seen in the past (but not this time, apparently) was a police setup next to the autobahn with their camera/radar-y looking equipment. When I’ve asked German colleagues about this, they’ve told me it’s probably to check distances between cars.

A96 to Lindau
Lurking somewhere on this autobahn is... Der Kommissar

There are actually signs on the autobahns for this: “Abstand gleich halber Tacho.” Although I first mistook this for a Taco Bell ad for half-off food, I later found out it was a formula for following distance based on speed. If you’re traveling at 100 km/h, you should be back 50 m from the car in front of you. (As I mentioned before, the German driving test requires math.) There are markings along the autobahn shoulder that’s supposed to help judge distances.

Through the magic of the metric system, German math, and Excel, this works out to be a 1.8 sec following distance regardless of speed. By driving 137 km/h and following at 24.35 m (0.64 second following distance), I broke this traffic law:

§ 4 Abs. 1, § 49 StVO; § 24 StVG; 12.6.2 BKat.
bei einer Geschwindigkeit von mehr als 130 km/h, sofern der Abstand in Metern weniger als ein Viertel des Tachowertes betrug
- weniger als 4/10 des halben Tachowertes

while driving in a Volkswagen Beetle with license plate HH-OC 7126 (D).

Somehow you can fit two little kids into the back of this thing
Flight of the rental Volkswagen Beetle

In typical German efficiency, they tracked down the car rental agency that gave me the car, found my contact information, got my American address, and sent me the ticket through registered mail. And as a courtesy to me, I can always fly back to Germany to their office in Straubing to see this filing.

I was also given 3 points on my driving record and had two weeks to pay the 203.50€ fine.

So of course I paid it. I’m sure the German government knows what I had for breakfast this morning, so I’m not taking chances.

I have two discussion points for this ticket. First, I’m sure I deserved it. I hate the aggressive driving I see on the autobahn, so it’s not a good thing if I’m part of the problem. I wasn’t trying to be aggressive. I was probably just getting a running start to pass someone, but to someone else, that could be seen as aggressive driving. I shouldn’t have done that, regardless of how little horsepower my rental car had.

The second point is that the entire letter was written in German. I understood most of it, but I made sure to ask my wife exactly what it said just to be sure. The fine was in euro (€), with a warning that I should pay exactly this amount. And the method of payment was based on the German banking system.

I paid this on-line using my German bank account.

My question is: how is a typical American traffic-law breaker supposed to know all this and be able to pay the fine when every thing is German? That’s just so Un-American!

A real patriot is the fellow who gets a parking ticket and rejoices that the system works.
--Bill Vaughan

Crankiness Rating: 7 out 11 (Because I’m an idiot.)

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EMan’s Road Rules

A man must have his guiding principles to lead him through life, like a shining beacon of clarity cutting through the troubling fog of our times. I have no idea what these principles are supposed to be, however, so instead I will write about my Rules of the Road which help minimize crankiness when I drive. If something more important than Driving comes up, then maybe I’ll come up with some rules for that, too.

“Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”
--Franklin D. Roosevelt

Here are a few rules that come up frequently in my daily commute. I even try to follow some of them. The rules that I left out from this list are generally related to being a considerate driver. Since the last known considerate driver was last seen stopping to help a horse and buggy get out of the mud shortly before getting rear-ended by a distracted driver trying to send a wireless telegram, we’ll leave those rules for a future post.

“A man is usually more careful of his money than he is of his principles.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

1. Pass early, pass often: There are many important, critical reasons why you should pass someone, such as they’re in front of you. Actually, that’s the only vital one that comes to mind.

2. Let the police car go faster (do not pass the policeman): So there I was, in the middle of the night heading south towards Flagstaff, AZ on U.S. 89. I was in the Porsche 944 Turbo playing "chase the taillights," a variation on another chasing game I used to play. The particular set of taillights I was chasing were quite a good distance away, but I was making good time.

Back then in 1996, no car had production radar-based blind spot detection, or any radar for that matter, but I used a Valentine One data acquisition device anyway, in case someone from 10 years in the future travelled back in time with their blind spot car. That meant that the radar signal I kept picking up with the Valentine was either a time traveller or police radar. It was intermittent and ahead of me. I was hoping for the time traveller.

That’s when my heart jumped through time and space when I realized that the taillights I had been chasing were in fact an Arizona state policeman. In a police Mustang. That I had caught rather quickly. I felt like the kid that hopes, “maybe mom won’t realize that the lamp in the living room is broken.”

I remember thinking to myself that as long as he can’t get behind me, he can’t pull me over. That’s when he slowed down from 55 mph (the speed limit) to 50 mph. I just stayed behind him. He dropped to 45 mph and I didn’t budge. We then came to an uphill grade with a passing lane, and he pulled to the right lane. I followed right behind him. We’re now both going 40 mph. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I broke the rule. I started passing the policeman at 45 mph. As I pulled beside him, I looked at him and shrugged my shoulders. He just glared back. I expected him to hit his lights, but he never turned them on. I got in front of him and he just followed me at 45 mph while every one else passed us by. He eventually turned off the highway, letting me continue in peace. I eventually started breathing again when I got onto I-40.

Edit: Found actual photo from actual trip of actual state of actual road before actual event.

7. Never follow a car if the driver is wearing a hat: baseball hat, backward baseball hat, fedora, sombrero, cowboy hat, flower hat, beret, skull cap, police cap, top hat, bowler, sun hat, coonskin cap, fez, Homburg, SA-rated helmet, pork pie hat, tam, tuque, ushanka— they’re all bad (although I wouldn’t mind getting a ushanka). See rule #1. If it’s a police cap, see rule #2.

Russian Fur

Hat Head Corollary: If you are following a car and do not see a head on which a hat can set upon, and can’t figure out how the car is being driven, treat the situation as if there is an imaginary hat on the imaginary head. Feel free to pick any of the hat list above.

9. Let the crazy driver by: You’ve seen this driver weaving, accelerating behind traffic and then slamming on the brakes (if you haven’t seen me, I’m apologizing ahead of time). Just let this driver by. Maybe take a different route altogether. The further you are from this person, the better. When he causes that inevitable accident, you want it far from you. As an added bonus, this driver may attract the police traffic ahead of you if you let him by.

Do not race this driver, do not antagonize or otherwise engage him. Let him go. It’s not worth it. If their driving is truly dangerous, consider calling it in (but pull over to make the call).

12. The Rock beats scissors: Always.

13. The Hitcher: You’re driving at night down a deserted road far from civilization with just the radio for company. You haven’t seen any signs of life for some time. Suddenly your headlights fixate on a dark stranger looming ahead. He looks a bit disheveled and ragged, like he just finished playing hockey. He says he’s been walking for a while. You listen to his smooth story about breaking down a ways back and see the wild glint in his eye. He just needs to get to the next town so he can get some help for the friends he left back at the car. He’s even willing to pay for the gas.

So here’s the rule.

You can let him throw his suspicious looking satchel in the back seat and let him lead you to that abandoned gas station, but you must not allow him to change the music on the radio. You need to have your principles.

(The radio is always Driver’s choice.)

“I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world.”
--Oscar Wilde

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Where the Rubber Meets the Road Salt

I’ve already mentioned how much I like rubber. This tire fetish of mine is seasonal—I get afflicted whenever I switch the tires on my cars. This November was no different. Over the Thanksgiving break, I changed the tires in two of my cars, switching to winter tires in preparation for that dreaded white stuff, snow.

So I would like to spout off a bit regarding winter tires. Am I professionally qualified to do this? Of course not. But I do write random things on the interwebs, and I work for a company that makes tires, although I have nothing to do with tires. Some of my cars have my company’s tires, and some don’t. My basis for the following is simply from buying a lot of tires, debating arguing fighting dueling coming to blows over light-hearted discussions with friends on the topic, the internet, and common sense.*

(*I apologize for putting “internet” and “common sense” in the same sentence.)

It’s possible that over the years I’ve picked up some superstitions about winter tires that I’ve included here. Please feel free to tell me about them in the comment section. Also, I have zero experience with studs or chains, so I won’t comment on them here (although tempted to).

Should I really buy winter tires?


Unless, of course, you live in places that don’t get snow in winter. In that case, I hate you and will laugh when light frost shuts down your entire city. But if you live in state like Michigan, which has an eight-month winter (and sometimes nine), then it’s a Very Good Idea. (Or if you live in these godforsaken places with extreme snowfall. By the way, have I mentioned that I hate snow?)

I realize there are a lot of reason for not buying snow tires. Some people have all-season tires, some people can’t afford it, and so on. Those can be valid reasons. In life, we pick our compromises. I choose to spend a few hundred dollars every few years in exchange for minimizing risks to my family and cars in the winter.

It’s not a law here in America like it is in Germany, but it’s a Pretty Good Idea.

But I have all-season tires. Do I really need winter tires?

Like I said, that’s a compromise. An all-season tire doesn’t have the grip and handling of a summer tire, and doesn’t have the grip on ice of a winter tire. I’m generally risk-averse, so I change tires. In my wife’s all-wheel drive Subaru, I can easily turn donuts in a snowy parking lot with all-season tires, but have a really, really hard time doing the same in winter tires (um... this was for engineering analysis, of course, so don’t mention it to her).

One thing to consider is how old or how many miles your tires have. Over time tires wear out their treads and harden reducing grip on snow and ice. Those all-seasons that were okay in the snow two years ago may not do as well this winter. It’s your choice, but I would still recommend buying winter tires.

“Compromise: An agreement between two men to do what both agree is wrong.”
--Lord Edward Cecil

Which winter tire should I buy?

I don’t know. I’ll tell you that I have Blizzak WS70s on my Subaru, and Continental ExtremeWinterContact on my wife’s Subaru, and General Altimax Arctic on my Honda. I’ve also used Pirellis, Dunlops, Yokohams, and Michelins in the past. I’ve been pretty happy with all of these.

In general, any winter tire will have better performance in snow and ice over any summer tire.

You could of course read the reviews online and get confused and frustrated. One of the issues with reviews is that you don’t always know the reviewer’s expectations, so you don’t know if the product was bad, or just didn’t meet the his/her expectations. Still, if a large number of people rate a tire well, that’s probably a good indicator that it’s a good tire (or a manufacturer was stuffing the ballot).

What’s a “performance” winter tire?

There’s a category of winter tires for sporty vehicles called performance winter tires. It’s normally associated with good handling, but I think these tires were designed for the high speeds (and associated heat) of the autobahn. When I bought a set of these in Germany, the tire store put a sticker on my dash reminding me not to exceed 210 km/h (130 mph), as indicated by the tire’s speed rating.

Most “real” winter tires have a Q-rating (160 km/h, 99 mph). These give up high speed driving (and its associated higher operating temperature) for better grip (softer at lower temperatures). Recent “real” winter tires have had higher speed ratings, like my Bridgestone Blizzak WS70, which are T-rated (190 km/h, 118 mph, and presumably two better than R-rated).

I’ve also owned Z-rated (240+ km/h, 149+ mph) snow tires, although I forget now what the service description was (which indicates actual top speed). Those were good from 2 inches of snow to 160 mph, although not at the same time.

The difference between these tires is how they compromise between snow/ice grip versus handling performance. Most people (not Todd) should get the “real” winter tires since they shouldn’t be approaching 99 mph (not Todd) in winter. For people with high performance cars (Todd) that like to drive fast (Todd) year round (Todd), and may approach (Todd) or exceed (Todd) autobahn speeds, go with the performance winter tires.

“A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.”
--Ludwig Erhard

I’ve been using the same set of snow tires for four winters. They should be good for another, right?

Probably not. It depends on the brand and driving conditions, but you can’t drive indefinitely on these tires. I get about three winters on my snow tires, driving 10,000-12,000 miles per winter.

Try and see if they’re still okay. If it seems fine, go for it. I’m penny wise, pound foolish, so I keep trying to get another winter out of my tires when I probably shouldn’t. But don’t do as I do, do as I say.

Can I mix and match my tires?

I wouldn’t recommend it, even with normal tires. If you have different brands or different types of tires on your car, it will have uncertain handling characteristics. In other words, who knows how it will handle as the conditions vary. Depending on where you install your tires on your car, it may understeer more (tendency to go straight in a turn) or oversteer more (tendency to turn sharper than desired in a turn) than it would normally.

But if you like surprises, go for it.

I have an all-wheel drive (AWD) car. Do I need winter tires?

Only if you need to stop. The advantage of all-wheel drive is to make it easier for the car to go in snow or ice. When it comes to stopping, all-wheel drive has no distinct advantage over front or rear-wheel drive vehicles. It all comes down to the grip of your tires.

Consider this data from the following boondoggle with guys screwing around in the snow pretending to do a serious magazine article test regarding the all-wheel drive Subaru WRX STI.

60-0 mph braking test:
Summer tires on asphalt: 106 ft
Summer tires on ice: 391 ft
Winter tires on ice: 274 ft

That’s 117 feet longer to stop on ice when using summer tires instead of winter tires.

You’ll get similar braking results with front-wheel and rear-wheel drive vehicles.

When is the best time to change tires?

In Germany, the rule of thumb is “von O bis O,” or von Oktober bis Ostern (from October to Easter). I change mine on Thanksgiving (November in the U.S.) and Easter (first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox), only because I have the extra time to do it.

Continental Tires recommends using winter tires when the temperature drops below 45°F (7°C). This seems to be the temperature where rubber molecules start to harden and freeze. That last one is hard for me to go by, as temperatures can be in the 30s in the morning and the 50s by afternoon in autumn in Michigan.

Maybe the best way to say it is, change to winter tires if you think you’ll get snow or ice in your region. This can be filed under “common sense.”

Cherohala Skyway in the Spring
April is not a good time to change to summer tires in the Appalachians, apparently. D’oh!

If winter tires are so great, can I drive with them year round?

Technically yes, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Heat is the big enemy of tires. Since winter tires are optimized for lower temperatures, they don’t do as well as the temperature rises. This will lead to faster wear. By the time winter comes around again, the tires will have degraded performance.

Winter tires generally have poor handling characteristics, and are not typically designed to prevent hydroplaning. If you’re switching tires anyway, go ahead and get a good set of summer tires for your car.

I have snow tires, traction control, AWD, ABS, ESC, M-O-U-S-E. I’m invincible in my car, right?

Only if you live in an alternate universe where the laws of Newtonian physics don’t apply.

The purpose of all those systems in your car is to allow the car to get as close to ideal performance as possible with nut jobs like us behind the wheel. For example, ABS (anti-lock brakes) typically works by letting the tires lock momentarily, releasing them, and then locking them again. This happens over and over, but very quickly. I’m simplifying here, but that’s the gist of what happens. In contrast, an experienced driver, like a race car driver, can brake at the threshold of tires limits without locking the tires. In dry pavement, this would result in better braking than with ABS.

Traction control is another example. Traction control tries to prevent a car from spinning its tires. It’s trying to maximize available grip. It can’t increase the traction of summer tires on ice, it can only use whatever grip is available. It’s the same concept with ESC (electronic stability control).

The point is here is that these systems won’t make driving foolproof, but they are a big help to most drivers.

If you have all these systems in your car, and drive like a mad man in snowy or icy conditions, chances are you will lose grip, which leads to Very Bad Things. We engineers have not perfected the SDW (stupid driver at wheel) module yet, so don’t do that.

Make it stop...

Use common sense. I know that’s asking for a lot in today’s day and age. Even if you have all these safety features while driving in wintery conditions, slow down and give yourself more distance for stopping and turning. And in case I lapse into a Walter Mitty/Sebastian Loeb impression because I forgot my meds again, just stay the hell off the roads when conditions are bad.

All right, fine, I’ll get winter tires. One last question—where do I store my tires when I’m not using them?

Tires should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place that’s well ventilated. The tires should be clean. Wrap and seal each tire in an opaque plastic bag.

Although it’s a big pain, I store my tires in the basement where the temperatures are cool and consistent. The temperature in a garage can be extreme, unless it’s regulated. If you have a climate-controlled garage, then give me a call. I have some tires I’d like to store there.

The links here and here have more information on storing tires.

Here are some additional links about winter tires. Maybe if you read this often enough on the interwebs, you’ll think it’s true.

Update [2011-12-16]: And one last thing... gas mileage. This won’t apply to everyone, but it certainly applied to me. My summer tires have a high rolling resistance and reduce my gas mileage. When I switch to my winter tires, I improve my gas mileage 1-2 mpg. This is hard to accurately quantify, as there are many variables (temperature, gas formulation, driving conditions) to consider when comparing winter driving with summer driving. In my wife’s car, I see no measurable difference. Take it for what it’s worth.

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Winter Wonderland

I drive faster than I should. While this is an affliction that affects many driving enthusiasts, I’m still able to lead a generally normal life. I just have to remember to follow two simple rules: 1) don’t drive in wet weather like it’s dry, and 2) let the police car go faster.

So every winter when it snows, I slow down. I like snow, as long as I don’t have to shovel it, plow it, walk through it, or see it. Driving in it is also not so high on my list. But as I live in Michigan, I’ve learned to deal with snow while driving.

  • I’ve learned driving in ruts is more important than driving in lanes when you can’t see the lanes.
  • I’ve learned that driving behind the snow plow truck will create blizzard-like conditions while being pelted with salt.
  • I’ve learned to look for parking curbs before doing donuts on snow-filled parking lots.
  • I’ve learned not to go Dukes of Hazzard on the snow berm the snow plow leaves in front of my driveway.

“The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above average drivers.”
--Dave Barry

There are a few things I tend to look for when it snows. One is the Panzer. This is the car completely covered in snow except for a slit on the windshield in front of the driver. Another is the Rally Driver. This is the person who blows by you in the left lane while you’re barely even able to stay in your own lane. This person is usually a good candidate for a game I simply call, Furthest from the Road.

I give creativity points in this game. Getting caught up an embankment in the trees with no visible entry or exit is pretty good. Bridging a ditch isn’t as easy as it sounds. Neither is straddling two guard rails. I just have to make sure I don’t play this game myself.

There was a turn around near my old apartment where I used to see tire tracks go up the curb and knock down a traffic sign whenever it would snow. I used to marvel at the idiots that kept knocking the sign down, and at the city that kept putting the sign back up. It goes without saying that one day, while rushing home for a date, I knocked that sign down, proving once again that I am an idiot (which makes me cranky).

As I see that more snow is forecasted for tomorrow’s morning commute, I have to remind myself of my first rule of life: avoid ending up in a YouTube video.