White-out Christmas – driving in the snow

White-out Christmas – driving in the snow – Brief Article

James P. Raabe

Christmas of 1999 was a memorable one for a variety of reasons. First of all, it was my first Christmas since my divorce and I wasn’t about to spend it without my 4-year-old daughter, Rebecca. Second, what I learned that year reinforced all the things I had been teaching as a wing safety guy.

In December 1999, I was stationed at Whiteman AEB, Mo., and Rebecca lived in Minot, N.D. I had been planning this trip to see her at Christmas for nearly 5 months. It takes that kind of time to plan for a trip like this. For example, I had to decide if I would fly or drive. Since money was a compelling factor, I chose to drive. Once that decision was made, I had to calculate: How many hours or days it would take to travel there; where I would spend the night; what route I would take; how much money would I need; what the weather would be like; and what kind of clothing I would need. I also took into account that the answers to many of these questions would vary depending upon road construction, weather, fatigue, etc. What I didn’t know at the time were the many variables (some frightening and some new) that my future held.

After packing extreme cold weather clothing and assembling a winter safety kit consisting of extra blankets, high energy foods, candles and matches, extra clothing, a small shovel, flashlight and extra batteries, tools, flares, and my cell phone, I set out for Minot. It was 40 degrees Fahrenheit in Missouri when I left and the weather was favorable. The first leg of the trip was virtually uneventful. I spent the evening in Watertown, S.D., approximately 440 miles from Minot. It was a cool 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but the weather was clear. I got a hotel for the night and proceeded to plan for any changes in the second leg of my trip.

I watched the Weather Channel for the next day’s weather and planned out alternate routes just in case. Except for a 20 percent chance of snow, I noted no other reason to delay the trip so I ate and got a good night’s rest. The next morning I checked the weather again for updates. When I saw there were none, I set out for another leisurely day of driving. I was about 125 miles from Minot when, without any prior notice, the weather changed drastically.

Now, even with all my planning, “there I was” …just 125 miles away from Minot on a two-lane highway, which was under construction, when suddenly the wind picked up and snow began to blow. I found myself smack dab in the middle of a raging blizzard! The roads, once slush covered from an early morning wet snow, turned to ice at least an inch thick. The 30 to 40 miles per hour wind drove perpendicular across my path making it impossible to stay on the road even if I could see it. I had never experienced a blizzard in open country before. I had always been in town or in familiar territory when they hit. I knew I should pull over and wait out the storm, but the 18-wheelers behind me had different ideas. As the mighty semis daringly passed me at or above the posted speed limit of 65 miles per hour, I could not help but wonder what could possibly make them jeopardize their lives or the lives of others. Maybe it was business as usual. Was it really possible that they could see over the driving snow and had good eno ugh traction to stay on the road? The answer did not matter at that moment, I had to think quickly and find a safe way to exit the road.

The only safe way to quickly exit was to use the shoulders of the road. The shoulders of the road in this region are narrow, but thankfully made of gravel — or at least they were at the time. Steep gullies lined the shoulders; I didn’t want to stray too far onto them. I knew the law said never use the shoulders while driving, but I assessed the situation, weighed the risks involved, and made my decision to continue. This enabled me to resume at a whopping controlled speed of 20 miles per hour until I was able to locate a place to pull off safely. I drove this way with flashers and lights on and kept looking in my rearview mirror — hoping and praying the big rigs could see me.

After 10 to 15 minutes of praying, I finally located a little town — I nearly missed it because of the limited visibility! I found a convenience store and had a hot cup of cocoa. As I regained composure in the store, I thought about what had just happened. What could I have done better? I thought I had been fully prepared. All my experience in the safety career field and in the Air Force did not prepare me for one uncontrollable variable … the human factor or, in this case, the truckers. I could not pull over on the side of the road and wait for the storm to end because I feared a truck would clobber me; I felt forced to drive in some pretty treacherous conditions. I feel I made the correct decision to continue and would do it again if I had to. A half hour later, the storm subsided and I continued my journey. Several miles from the convenience store the roads were clear — as if there had been no storm at all. I continued my trek to Minot safely and spent a wonderful Christmas with Rebecca.

COPYRIGHT 2001 U.S. Department of the Air Force

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