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.

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. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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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 Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency:

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau:

Order Traffic from:

Amazon | B&N | Borders
Random House | Powell’s

U.S. Paperback UK Paperback
Traffic UK
Drive-on-the-left types can order the book from

For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



September 2008

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