Slip-sliding away

Think front-wheel drive can protect  you from the hazards of a snowy Boston commute? Not so fast.
By ALAN R. EARLS  |  January 23, 2008

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A little more than five years ago, two teenage girls, Amber Nicole Dibibar and Kerri Driscoll, were heading to their jobs at a daycare center in a front-wheel drive Ford Escort. They were making their way through a squall of wintry mix, well within the speed limit, on a suburban street in Franklin, when Dibibar lost control of the car on a patch of slippery road and was broadsided by a Jeep. Dibibar was seriously injured; Driscoll (known to her friends as “Sunshine”) was killed. Dibibar had hardly recovered from her injuries when she was charged with vehicular homicide.

But instead of charging the teenager with a crime, the authorities might have pointed the finger of blame at car makers and drivers’-ed schools who have been ignoring some inconvenient truths about popular — and profitable — front-wheel-drive cars for decades. The record of the Dibibar collision is ambiguous (she was cleared of all charges in 2004), but, working from circumstantial evidence, there’s a good chance the cause of this accident, and thousands of others each year, wasn’t driver negligence but poor driver training and a paucity of safety information from the auto industry.

What’s that, you say, front-wheel drive is unsafe? How can that be, if front-wheel-drive cars are known for their ability to handle snowy driving conditions, the likes of which Boston’s seen so much lately? True, compared with rear-wheel-drive vehicles — which ruled the road from the Model T through the 1980s — front-wheel drive offers a comfortable and responsive driving experience. They can also get through snow a lot better than their predecessors did because several factors, primarily the weight of the engine above the wheels that are pulling the car, improve traction.

Just because they might have an advantage moving forward in snow or slush, however, doesn’t mean front-wheel-drive cars stop in poor conditions or handle wet or icy curves any better than other cars. In that sense, front-wheel drive provides an illusion of control and safety that can dissipate in an instant.

Accident statistics gathered by groups such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety don’t focus on the model or drive train of vehicles involved, so, currently, evidence supporting the idea that mishandling front-wheel-drive vehicles is responsible for crack-ups is anecdotal.

But, actuarially sound or not, there are abundant reasons to be suspicious. Armchair analyses of accident reports in the media can be compelling. (And as a former ASE-certified auto mechanic, I do have some expertise in this area.) For example, as reported in the MetroWest Daily News, in May 2003, Tereza Pires was driving along notoriously hazardous I-290 near Worcester when she “hit a puddle near the side of the road and began hydroplaning, leaving her helpless to stop the minivan from careening off the road and rolling over several times.” One can’t help but speculate that, if Pires had been trained and understood the special dynamics of front-wheel drive, she might have used the engine's power to regain control. Instead, she most likely fell back on the traditional responses to loss of traction: taking her foot off the gas or stepping on the brakes. As a result, Pires and two family members, including her eight-year-old daughter, lost their lives.

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