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Skids

Photo by Markbaard/Flickr

While recently driving in Maine, I couldn’t help notice the proliferation of skid marks on certain stretches of relatively empty rural roads. Sometimes, they seemed of the standard “lock ‘em up” variety — straight and jet black — as if the driver had been called to suddenly stop for an obstacle in the road (and it’s said the presence of these is a good indicator of potential moose-spotting).

In other cases, they seemed tied to some actual off-road crash, as in the photo above. Skid marks, to the crash investigator, are like fingerprints, or any other bit of forensic evidence. They tell a story. Often, there is little else at a crash site from which to draw information, and so the investigators peer into the patterns, and measure the lengths, of these black tracings, to try and reconstruct a narrative. “Gap skids,” for example, show a driver was braking, releasing the brake, then braking again. “Yaw marks” hint that a tire was both rolling and skidding, suggesting a loss of control. Some skids may, of course, be due to acceleration, not braking, in which case they will begin dark and lighten in the direction of travel.

But I would also come across skids that made no sense. Strange elliptical loops, figure-8s at stop-signs, wavy single tracks that looked like unfurled ribbons, marks that crossed from one side of the road to the other with no apparent logic. That’s when I was told of an art form that was heretofore unknown to me. “Road art,” as one Downeaster called it, in which drivers, predominantly young males (who else?), carefully construct geometric patterns through the careful application of burning rubber. There’s even a documentary film about it.

It seems driven by two things. One, the human eternal desire to make marks upon the landscape — for territoriality or some more exalted purpose — not so distinct, I suppose, from Maine’s famous petroglyphs. Another, the film suggests, might be sheer exuberance, as a lobsterman might celebrate a good catch by doing a few doughnuts at the town pier. I suppose the “skid art” could be read as an indicator of economic health; after all, it represents sheer surplus. It costs money — in gas and in tires — to do abstract expressionism on asphalt. The blacker and more intricate the skids, the better the economy. Given Maine’s current fortunes, and the cost of fuel, fresh skid art may be a rare commodity.

One of the stranger aspects of all this, as I was told, is that sometimes drivers will try to create skid marks that look like particularly dramatic crashes — e.g., a car that veered wildly off-road. This, curiously, intersects with the work of an artist named Nancy Manter, whose work Road Art (the collection is shown below), was, she notes, “inspired by reports of several fatal car accidents on a back-country road in Maine.”

She continues:

I became aware of the overlapping skid marks on these roads, and the tragedy of the teenage drivers who lost their lives that year. Over time, I observed that these marks began to build up a history. They seemed to be a series of collaborations between “silent partners,” made up of skid marks by the intersection of cars and lost souls. I, too, began to overlay my own skid marks on top of existing ones, but with far less intensity and speed. I thought of them as an homage to these lost souls, recalling memories from my own reckless driving on back country roads in Maine.

Was there some similar impulse at work in the “road graffiti” artists? Were their furious etchings some deep response to the dangers of the road? So here’s the curious condition: Driving down Maine roads, particularly at night, when the black traces seem more ominous, you don’t know what the skid marks mean.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008 at 9:54 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “Skids”

  1. sally Says:

    There is art in skids and also in tar work.
    Please see the Palo Alto Urban Petroglyph Project:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/23526605@N00/sets/72157594241400279/

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

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