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Here, There and Everywhere Between

Here, There and Everywhere Between

10th Mountain Division Command Safety Office
Fort Drum, New York

I thought working at Fort Drum, New York, for more than 18 years had given me a pretty good feel on how to gauge weather conditions. My complacency and overconfidence one winter day, however, made me question not only my “weather nose,” but also my sanity.

My wife and I had decided to enjoy an empty-nest getaway weekend at Turning Stone resort and casino in Verona, New York, about 100 miles from our home in Watertown. I conducted a hasty risk assessment and determined that if we departed after work, I would be driving in daylight for at least part of the trip. In addition, due to the short distance we’d be traveling, my usual self-mandated rest stop every two hours would not be needed. The weather at Fort Drum was clear and sunny. Road conditions were dry, so I assessed the risk as low. The one not-so-small thing I overlooked, however, was the unique topography of upstate New York meant weather conditions could change quickly.

Just because the weather looks great where you’re at doesn’t mean it’s that way five miles down the road. This is particularly true between Watertown and Syracuse (a 70-mile drive) in an area known as the Tug Hill plateau, which is about halfway between the two cities. This region borders Lake Ontario and is notorious for producing quick and intense lake-effect snow squalls.

Lake-effect snow is caused when very cold air flows over the relatively warmer water of a large lake. Intense evaporation from the lake surface under these conditions forms convective clouds that cannot contain all of this water, causing some of it to fall back to the surface as snow. These snow showers often form into bands or lines.

The trip was uneventful for the first 20 miles, but the line of cars heading north — covered in snow and their lights on — warned me things were about to change. Scanning ahead, I saw the black vortex coming our way. It was decision time. I could abort the trip and turn around or gut it through the Tug Hill plateau. Knowing my vehicle handled well in the snow and trusting my winter driving skills, I decided to continue and drive according to conditions.

Some folks drive into bad weather conditions and think, “Cool, this is a challenge.” I, on the other hand, will tell you I was scared. We didn’t drive into slowly thickening snow; we hit the band head on. The snow came down so hard and fast that the plows didn’t have a chance to react yet. The road was still drivable, barely, due to other vehicles churning the snow. Unfortunately, getting off at an exit to wait out the storm was not an option, as the snow had piled up on the ramps. I was thankful I was driving my wife’s car, which had new winter wiper blades. We’d be fine, I though. Oops, I spoke too soon!

Ten miles into the band, the snow became so bad that it lifted my blades half a foot off the windshield. The good news was that the line of cars we were traveling with was only going about 5 mph. Although we never encountered true whiteout conditions, I couldn’t fathom why some cars only had on their parking lights even though New York is one of those wipers-on/headlights-on states. After 10 more miles of white-knuckle driving, we finally broke out of the band into a beautiful, star-filled sky.

I took away two valuable lessons from this experience that I stress in winter driving classes. First, know the weather conditions for where you’re at, where you’re going and everywhere in between. Check local weather forecasts and be especially sensitive to weather alerts. You can also get weather information from your state police office. I once had a trooper tell me that he would rather answer phone calls about weather conditions than walk along the highway probing mounds of snow with his collapsible baton while looking for buried vehicles.

Another great way to get the latest driving conditions is to use the 511 telephonic driving information system available in most states. New York compliments this with a 511 website that will show you road closures, weather alerts and even road construction sites. Better yet, you can access traffic cameras to get a real-time snapshot of road conditions along your route.

The second lesson I want to stress is always see and be seen. Take the time to clear the snow from all of your vehicle’s windows, mirrors and lights, and make sure you use those headlights! Not only is it smart, it’s the law in many states. Knowing your route is important, but knowing the weather conditions along the entire way will ensure you get there safely.

  • 1 December 2014
  • Author: Army Safety
  • Number of views: 10485
  • Comments: 0