In my long-ago truck driving days, I always managed to “keep it between the fence posts,” to use an old saying. That means in dry or sloppy weather, I kept trucks on or near the roadway. It doesn’t mean a truck never got away from me. That happened in the wee hours of a late winter morning, when light snow caused my truck to spin out, twice within a few minutes, on 90-degree curves.
The real cause was me driving too fast for conditions. Had I been driving a semi, it might not have ended well because pulling a trailer is far more tricky.
Newscasts within the last week, when blizzards hit the Northeast and elsewhere, showed a lot of scenes of jackknifed semis on various Interstates, and a few in ditches. While I didn’t have to pull trailers through snow and ice in Wisconsin winters, I sometimes whined about traffic, idiot car drivers, and the weather.
My boss, a former driver, once lectured, “You’re the one who’s supposed to be in control of the truck. If you get into trouble, you’re the one who’s responsible.” Funny thing: Police tend to see it that way, too. My boss could’ve added that for every truck and driver that comes to grief along a certain stretch of road, there are many that don’t. They must’ve done something right.
Slow way down in blinding conditions? Sure, but not so suddenly that you get rear-ended. Even better, park the truck in a safe place, like a truck stop, customer’s yard (if they’ll allow it), or rest area, and wait out the storm. Or seek a way around it. Watching weather forecasts, particularly those of a local and regional nature, can tip off drivers and, more importantly, their supervisors that conditions are risky and alterations should be made to normal operations.
Fog and whiteouts caused by blowing snow can often be anticipated by considering the time of the year and what regularly happens along certain stretches of roadway. For instance, some highways in the Upper Midwest and Northeast are subject to lake-effect snow accompanied by high winds, said John Woodroofe, director of vehicle research at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Center, in a presentation to private fleet managers a couple of years ago.
Whiteouts should be no surprise, especially because state transportation departments issue advisories that conditions are ripe for them to happen. Owners of the tractor-trailers involved in multi-vehicle pileups under such conditions ought to ask themselves, “Should my truck have been on the highway that day? Wouldn’t it be wiser to pause operations or reroute trucks away from the affected areas?”
The pressure to deliver freight on time causes drivers and dispatchers to want to push through no matter what the weather. That pressure can be lessened by bad-weather protocol that involves the entire company, from dispatch and operations right up to top executives, said Woodroofe.
“We need a driver protocol for fog and whiteout conditions, which covers what they should do when they suddenly encounter zero visibility,” or severe weather in general, he advised. Shippers and receivers should be involved so they understand that delivery delays are far better than their goods being scattered across the site of a bad wreck.
Having said all that, I must note that what I hauled were newspapers, one of the more perishable commodities around. So we went, no matter what the weather. Maybe you must do the same with whatever you’re carrying. So, another addage applies: “Be careful out there.”