Friday, January 04, 2013

Black Ice

Snow arrived in our area of New Mexico this week, creating very bad road conditions.  By mid-day on Thursday, more than twenty collisions had been logged on the east side of Las Cruces, and the road closures began.  My rehearsal was canceled and I decided to head home.

For most of the sixty-mile drive back to Deming, the I-10 wasn't bad.  Most of us motorists were hanging back on the speed and the lane changes.  The car had traction.  Visibility wasn't bad.  One or two eighteen-wheelers were perhaps a bit overconfident.  Otherwise, it felt fairly safe.

Until it wasn't.  Suddenly, chaos.

About 15 miles east of Deming, I saw the flashing lights of a rescue vehicle, and noticed police cars on the right side of the freeway; and then, immediately, I lost control of the car.

My car was floating.  Having been in skids before (growing up driving in New England winters), I left the brake alone and attempted to steer into the skid lightly.  But I was already overbalanced and there was no grip at all.  The car began to spin.  180 degrees -- hello drivers behind me!  -- and kept going.  275 degrees, facing north, and sliding sliding sliding sliding backwards and sideways off the freeway.

Time elongated, as it does, and I considered the immediate dangers.  Nobody was close enough to me to collide with me, so now the question was whether the car would roll.  Probably not, I figured; not going fast enough.  Snow flew around the car, glowing in the headlights, and pretty quickly the car came to a stop and stalled out, dashboard lit up with distressed warning lights.

Cool.  Next danger: another car sliding off and barreling into me.  I looked up in anticipation of a 3,000 pound S.U.V. skidding towards me.  Nothing quite that dire, but I looked around and beheld a situation that was completely out of control.  Easily half a dozen cars and pickups wiped out on the westbound side alone, even more eastbound.  There were tow trucks and police cruisers and ambulances, but even as these people were working the accident scene, more motorists were arriving at the black ice and skidding out, so people were pretty much ducking more vehicles spinning and skidding out.  Complete madness in the dark.  The closest thing I've ever witnessed to a war zone.


Stay put or go?  Didn't really have a safe option.  Would the car even move?  The engine started back up.  Had some trouble getting traction, almost gave up.  Usually, the safest thing in this situation would be to sit inside the car with the flashers on and wait for rescue.  But with vehicles wiping out everywhere I looked, um, no. At the very least, I wanted to pull off to the right of the freeway.  Another vehicle plunged into the snow nearby.  Nah, I didn't like it here.

The car found traction, there was a large gap in traffic, and I was able to cautiously get back on and move safely to the right hand lane, traveling in low gear, hazard lights on, and that's how I crawled the rest of the way to Deming.  In the rear view I saw a dark pickup truck that had gone off the right side of the freeway get back on and immediately spin out again, this time going off on the left hand side in a spray of snow. 

All things considered, it was a good night to be indoors with hot chocolate. But how safe and predictable is that situation, even?  We can manage risk and navigate life as best we can but that black ice can come on without warning.  Be careful. 

[Image: My car on Friday morning, resting after our latest adventure. This car has been through a lot in ten years.]


Kelly said...

You've had more than your share of excitement lately!

Glad you got home safely.

Richard Muto said...

Many years ago I was in a car which was stopped on top of the Mt Hope Bridge. There was an ice storm and sever winds. One car had skidded at the apex of the bridge and was hanging halfway off the side of the bridge, teetering back and forth slowly in the wind. A police officer tried several times to approach our car but the wind kept pushing him back. With no traction on the ice, he kept sliding away from us again. After ten or fifteen minutes he made it to our car and informed us of the situation. We waited on top of the bridge for over an hour, feeling the car slide a little this way, and then a little that way, until a sanding truck with sand/salt could arrive and sand/salt the bridge.

Algernon said...

Indeed, Kelly. And Richard -- that sounds pretty scary.

Kaliy said...

Scary! I never realized it got that cold in New Mexico.

Algernon said...

Overnight, it certainly does. We get snow but it doesn't stick around more than a day typically. The day is warm enough to melt it off. There are no snow plows, however, and so when we get a healthy snowfall, the state will sometimes close the interstate. I've seen them close the interstate the entire length of New Mexico, between Arizona and Texas.