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A Brush With Death


My commute to work is 48 miles each way. My usual route is on a 2-lane state highway and a couple of 2-lane county roads. Traffic is light and the rural scenery is beautiful.
Two days ago Wisconsin was hit by a snowstorm, and two days prior to that we had freezing rain. The result was atrocious driving conditions, so I decided to skip my usual route and take the alternative, which follows three different 4-lane highways.
Big mistake. The 4-lane roads were no better plowed/salted than my usual 2-lane roads are, and traffic was heavy. Clots of slow-traveling vehicles (30 mph) created as much hazard as the idiots doing 75 mph. I had my cruise control set at 50, which in my vehicle was a safe speed for the conditions.
I had just passed a clot of 3 or 4 vehicles and moved back into the right lane when I came to a highway overpass. As I came over the crest, I was horrified to see a spun-out vehicle stalled in my lane facing oncoming traffic. The steep grade of the overpass had prevented seeing him in time, and I realized I was going to hit him head-on at 50 mph. I pulled the steering wheel to the left and simultaneously hit the brakes, hard, hoping to avoid the inevitable collision. The antilock brake system chattered like an Uzi on full auto, but the Blizzak Snow & Ice tires gripped the road as advertised, and my car pulled into the left lane. I may have brushed the stalled vehicle with my rear bumper, but I didn’t feel an impact. However, the violence of my maneuver put me into a clockwise spin.
A spin at 50 mph on icy roads is no treat. I slid into the concrete median divider butt-first, striking a glancing blow with my right rear quarter, and that impact spun me back across the highway counter-clockwise. I hit the steel guard rail hard (again with my right rear quarter panel). I struggled to get the car pointing the right direction, knowing that if I came to a stop facing any other direction I would almost certainly be hit by one of the following vehicles. I was still doing 30 mph when I got the car under control. I looked into my rearview mirror and was horrified to see three or four vehicles spinning down the overpass toward me, all out of control.
As I hadn’t hit another vehicle, and in my estimation stopping there would almost certainly result in being hit by another out-of-control vehicle, I continued on. I tried to report the accident on my cell phone, but the county dispatch officer asked me to call back later as they were swamped with emergency calls at that time. I did so, and learned that 14 vehicles had crashed as a result of that single spun-out vehicle on the overpass. I was unhurt, but several people had to be transported to the regional trauma center.
The lessons that can be drawn from this incident are potentially life-saving. If you live in the South, you may want to skip this blog. But if you live in country where it snows/freezes, you may want to pay attention.
As and ER doc I have more than passing familiarity with motor vehicle collisions (MVC) and the damage they can do to people. MVCs, which are nearly always accidental or negligent in character, killed 43,667 Americans in 2005 (most recent year full data are available). By contrast, firearms deaths accounted for 30,694 deaths, and the majority of these were suicides and homicides. In the same year approximately 100 law enforcement officers died from gunshot wounds, yet nearly four times as many died in MVCs.
Not surprisingly, winter driving conditions dramatically escalate the number of MVCs. But there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of being in a crash, and if you do have a wreck, reduce the chance of injury. I’ve been following these steps for years and it’s kept me out of an accident for more than a decade. Two days ago, I believe they likely saved my life.
First: don’t drive a vehicle that is unsafe. Pickup trucks are notoriously unsafe vehicles (as it happens, the stalled vehicle I narrowly avoided hitting was a pickup), and your chance of being killed in a pickup crash are nearly twice as high as if you’re driving a sedan or station wagon. Why is that? Because trucks have a higher center of gravity, and they most of their weight in the front. As a result they are prone to rollover and spinning out of control. Moreover, the legally mandated crash protection standards in passenger cars don’t apply to pickups or SUVs. Fullsize SUVs are, by the way, just as bad as pickup trucks, because they’re built on truck chassis and have the same high center of gravity and poor front-to-back weight distribution. Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive does NOT make trucks any safer. In fact, they make them less safe because the IBTW (Idiot Behind The Wheel) falsely assumes his/her 4WD will allow faster speeds on slippery roads.
Second: the term “All-Season Radial Tires” is bovine excrement. ASR’s are fine in spring, summer, and fall, but they suck in snow and on ice. Numerous studies have shown that a good Snow-and-Ice (SI) tire will keep you on the road when everybody else is in the ditch or behind a tow truck. SI tires have a more aggressive tread that sheds snow, while ASRs’ treads pack with snow and become effectively “bald”. Moreover, SI tires are made of a softer, stickier rubber compound. This reduces their wear life if driven on warm pavement, but it allows them to stick to icy surfaces. Bridgestone’s Blizzak tires have been my standard winter footwear on all my vehicles for 10 years. In that time none of my vehicles have been in a winter MVC, until this week.
Third: learn to drive in unstable conditions. Various auto clubs provide winter driving courses. Another good option is to take a race driving class, such as the excellent Bob Bondurant courses offered around the country. You’ll learn an awful lot about handling a car in a skid from Bondurant’s instructors.
In my MVC two days ago, I was saved from death or serious injury by these three things. I was driving my Chrysler 300M, which is equipped with Blizzaks, a sport suspension/steering package that makes it far more responsive than most cars and a very good ABS system, and I’ve taken Bondurant’s course. If any of the three had been absent, I’d have hit that pickup and if I hadn’t been killed, my legs would probably be shattered and I would have sustained significant chest, abdomen, or pelvic trauma.
But if I’d been driving my Blizzak-equipped Subaru (which my daughter was using that day), I not only would have avoided the collision, but I would probably have maintained stability and wouldn’t have even hit the guardrail.
As it happens, I’ve been looking into replacing my Chrysler with a Subaru Forester recently. Once I get the bodywork done on the 300, I’m selling it. And next week I’m picking up my new Forester.

Anybody want to buy a Chrysler 300M Special Sport?

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