Tips for Surviving Mother Nature’s Wrath

Since occasional bad weather is an unfortunate reality of driving, I thought this might be a good time to remind everyone of the perils of driving in some of the worst of what Mother Nature can throw at us. More importantly, I’d like to share with you some insights as to what you can do about improving your odds of survival. This might just save your life some day.

Recently, while on a leisurely drive through beautiful Southern California, I had the good fortune to survive what, in my mind, was a near-death experience, courtesy of especially bad weather combined with the topography of the area that I was driving through. I kid you not.

My car trip started off with just the slightest bit of rain bidding me farewell, as I departed San Diego for Los Angeles and points north. Soon afterwards, the skies cleared and I was looking forward to a pleasant couple of days of driving and seeing the sights. My drive to LA was non-eventful. The traffic was surprisingly light (even through the infamous El Toro bottleneck!) and, as a result, I made good time.

After spending the night in Beverly Hills (shades of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”), I got up bright and early the next morning and resumed my drive. The sun was out and the skies were mostly blue, with a few puffy clouds. My final destination was a place just about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The particular route and destination are not important. What does matter is what happened, and my reaction to it.

First, a little background is in order. I am not a California native. Rather, I was transplanted here from Western Canada about 20 years ago. As a consequence of that, I have plenty of experience driving in inclement weather. I thought driving in a really bad snowstorm (otherwise known as a whiteout) is about as bad as it gets. Wrong! In reality, there are many different scenarios equally as dangerous, including heavy fog, rain (especially when trying to pass a semi, which throws up its own mighty spray of water), black ice (all but invisible) and more.

This particular trip was about to introduce me to what was for me a totally new hazard. I was driving along, minding my own business and doing around 65 (that highway’s speed limit), when I entered a section of country that was very sandy. The wind kicked up and started to lightly blow some of this sand across the fairly busy highway. It didn’t seem to be causing a problem and I did not pay much attention to it. My camera was sitting in my open camera bag on the seat beside me.

Suddenly, the wind got much stronger. I could feel it buffeting my car. Instinctively, I slowed down a little bit. I did not like what I saw ahead of me. Perhaps foolishly, the photographer in me felt an urgent need to document this event, so I quickly grabbed for my auto-focus camera, held it up, pointed it more or less ahead to capture the SUV ahead of me driving into what looked like oblivion, and pressed the shutter release. Then, just as quickly, I put the camera back down.

It is a good thing I did because a moment later I was in the middle of what I took a picture of. I couldn’t see anything outside of my car. Think about that for a moment. Picture yourself driving on a fairly busy highway (two lanes in each direction) and suddenly not being able to see the road, any traffic or anything else. What would you do?

Here’s what I did. As I drove into the beige cloud of sand, I slowed down a lot. I had no idea if the traffic ahead of me was still moving, stopped or worse. I dreaded the thought of plowing into anyone. However, if I came to a complete stop, what then? What if traffic behind me was still moving? They couldn’t see me any better than I could see anyone else, and the possibility of getting rammed by vehicle after vehicle in a chain reaction series of collisions, as I sat motionless on the freeway, frankly terrified me. I decided to keep moving, albeit slowly. Suddenly, I saw a shadowy, large shape looming in the dust ahead of me. It was the SUV that I had just taken a picture of but it was one lane over – in my lane! I didn’t have any time to ponder the alternatives or look around. Instead, I had an instant to react. So, I used that time to change lanes, hoping that no one was beside me. Luckily, no one was there. A moment later (although it seemed like an eternity) I emerged back into a sunny day. Badly shaken, I drove the remainder of the way to my destination at well under the posted speed limit.

So, what can be learned from this incident? First, blowing dust can effectively blind you, so treat it with the utmost respect. Second, you need to be aware of what is around you at all times. I knew that an SUV was ahead of me, and that there was fairly steady traffic on the highway, so I based my decisions accordingly – to proceed slowly but not stop, and to be ready for avoiding vehicles in my path if possible. Finally, and this is the wild card, don’t discount the luck factor. I was simply lucky that no one was beside me when I made the snap decision to change lanes. That wasn’t skill. It was just luck. I’ll welcome a healthy dose of that any day. 

Drive safely and do join me again next time.

Copyright © 2005, 2006 & 2021 by Jan Wagner — AutoMatters & More #162r1

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Jan Wagner

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