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Winter Wipeout

Winter Wipeout

DAVID HENRY

My unit had just returned from a deployment and everyone was ready for some much-deserved leave. I couldn’t wait for the end of the duty day so I could get on the road. While my leave wouldn’t actually start until Monday, my unit’s liberal leave policy would allow me to telephonically sign out from my home in Denver, Colorado.

I’d made the drive from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to Denver a half-dozen times in the past and had no concerns that I could do it again. After all, I was prepared. I had a new truck I’d just topped off with fuel and I knew my route well. I even planned stops for rest and fuel every few hours. The trip would be 1,120 miles and take about 19-20 hours. That meant I’d be driving through the night, which was something I enjoyed because of the lack of traffic on the highway.

My journey was event-free for the first 12 hours. Then, about halfway across Kansas, I drove straight into a blizzard. I was becoming extremely tired, so I pulled off at a truck stop in WaKeeney to rest and allow the snowstorm to pass. After I fueled up, I went inside for a latrine break, breakfast and coffee.

When I left the truck stop 40 minutes later, the storm hadn’t subsided. In fact, the weather had actually deteriorated to near whiteout conditions with blowing snow drifting and covering both lanes of Interstate 70. The other drivers on the road had resorted to traveling in one lane directly in the center of the highway. I knew I needed to be extra alert considering the worsening weather conditions, but I still wasn’t that concerned. I simply shifted my truck into four-wheel drive and kept heading west, following an 18-wheeler at 30-35 mph.

After about an hour, I noticed I was again starting to nod off intermittently. I thought about pulling into a rest area for some sleep, but I was nearing the Kansas-Colorado state line and wanted to get home. I rolled down my driver’s window for fresh air and poured a cup of coffee from my thermos. As I finished my coffee, the weather started clearing and traffic speed increased. The next thing I remember was waking up as my truck was drifting off the right side of the highway. Startled, I jerked the steering wheel hard left, which sent my truck into a spin toward the snow-covered center median. I thought I would be able to salvage the situation, but my left-front tire hit a drainage culvert that ran beneath the interstate, which flipped my truck onto the driver’s side.

I was knocked unconscious when my head struck the door pillar. The screaming voice of a motorist who had stopped to render aid woke me up. I had a massive headache but was otherwise uninjured. A trucker who witnessed the accident also stopped and used his CB radio to call the Kansas Highway Patrol and a wrecker.

A few days later, I did a serious evaluation of the decisions I made prior to my accident. I’d never been in an accident and considered myself an excellent, safe driver. I couldn’t believe I’d fallen asleep at the wheel. I asked myself the following questions:

  • Why did I try to drive 1,120 miles (19-20 hours) straight through?
  • Why didn’t I wait to leave in the morning after a full night’s sleep? I had worked an entire day before starting this trip.
  • Why didn’t I stop driving when I recognized I was exhausted and falling asleep at the wheel? I thought about stopping at a rest area and sleeping but decided to push on.
  • Why didn’t I check the weather forecast for my route?
  • Why didn’t I have snow tires that provided improved traction on snow and ice? I drove on the steel-belted radials that came with the truck even though I knew I would be traveling through snow-prone states.

I’ve since retired from the Army and currently work as a safety professional. I’ve told this story at monthly newcomers’ briefings numerous times. I hope leaders and Soldiers will learn that they can prevent these needless accidents. I recommend the following tips:

  • Leaders must ensure their leave policies require Soldiers to physically sign out the morning their leave starts if they are driving.
  • Soldiers should always use the U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center’s TRiPS travel planning tool prior to leave, pass or TDY if driving or riding a motorcycle.
  • Soldiers should always have a plan and never push the envelope. If you get tired, stop and rest every few hours or switch drivers. Never drive for more than 10 continuous hours. Army Regulation 385-10, para 11-4b, states: (1) Operators will be provided with at least 8 consecutive hours of rest during any 24-hour period. (2) An operator will not drive more than 10 hours in a duty period (including rest and meal breaks).
  • Ensure your vehicle is safe to drive, to include snow tires, if required.

I was lucky. My accident only cost me monetarily, specifically: The tow truck cost me $100. I received a $200 ticket and points on my license for driving too fast for the road conditions. Additionally, following a mandatory court appearance, I paid $1,200 for damages my truck caused to the culvert. My insurance company totaled the truck, and because the accident was deemed entirely my fault, my insurance rates almost doubled. While the financial impact hurt, it was a small price to pay for an important — and much needed — lesson learned.

FYI

Snow and ice can make winter driving hazardous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Occupational Safety and Health Administration offer the “Three P’s of Safe Winter Driving” in hopes of preventing motor vehicle injuries due to winter storms.

PREPARE

  • Maintain your car. Check the battery, tire tread and windshield wipers; keep your windows clear; put no-freeze fluid in the washer reservoir; and check your antifreeze.
  • Have on hand. Flashlight, jumper cables, abrasive material (sand, kitty litter, even floor mats), shovel, snow brush and ice scraper, warning devices (like flares) and blankets. For long trips, add food and water, medication and a cellphone.
  • Stopped or stalled? Stay in your car, don’t overexert, put bright markers on the antenna or windows and, if you run your car, clear the exhaust pipe and run it just enough to stay warm.
  • Plan your route: Allow plenty of time (check the weather and leave early if necessary), be familiar with the maps/directions, and let others know your route and arrival time.
  • Practice cold-weather driving! During the daylight, rehearse maneuvers slowly on ice or snow in an empty lot; steer into a skid; know what your brakes will do: stomp on antilock brakes, pump non-antilock brakes; stopping distances are longer on ice; and don’t idle for a long time with the windows up or in an enclosed space.

PROTECT YOURSELF

  • Buckle up and use child safety seats properly.
  • Never place a rear-facing infant seat in front of an air bag.
  • Children 12 and under are much safer in the backseat.

PREVENT CRASHES

  • Drugs and alcohol never mix with driving.
  • Slow down and increase distances between cars.
  • Keep your eyes open for pedestrians walking on the road.
  • Avoid fatigue — get plenty of rest before the trip, stop at least every three hours and rotate drivers if possible. If you are planning to drink, designate a sober driver.
  • 10 December 2021
  • Author: USACRC Editor
  • Number of views: 1046
  • Comments: 0
Categories: Off-DutyPMV-4
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