Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Adventures in Winter Travel; Sick

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I was traveling to Portland and back to get our son moved back to Boise.  It was an adventure--one that I do not intend to repeat.

The drive over wasn't too bad; there was some snow on the road in the Blue Mountain passes, but not enough to be frightening.  There was one semi that was in the median strip pointed 180 degrees the wrong way.  I am still trying to figure out what happened.  There were no tracks indicating that he came from the opposite lanes of traffic--leading the conclusion that he somehow spun himself onto the median.  Sobering, even if we couldn't figure exactly what went wrong.

Coming back was another matter.  Getting the trailer loaded was slower than I expected.  Getting his apartment cleaned up enough to have some hope of getting his cleaning deposit back also took longer than expected.  By the time we left, it was early afternoon--and it was raining in Portland.

As we reached the Blue Mountain passes after dark, it was snowing pretty heavily, and some of it was sticking to the road surface.  Worse, there were some places where the snow was a thin layer on top of icy patches.  Our daughter and I took turns doing the driving, which often meant driving very slowly.

The TrailBlazer is 4WD, although we kept it in Auto mode the whole time.  (Auto mode is an all wheel drive mode that distributes power to the rear wheels until it starts detecting slip, then it redistributes power to the front wheels.)  A common misunderstanding is that AWD or 4WD means that you can drive as fast as you want on slick surfaces.  This is emphatically not the case.  AWD and 4WD mean that you get going just fine on slick surfaces, but do nothing for stopping on slick surfaces.  If you don't have chains on, or studded tires, you are going to get a field demonstration of the equations we learned about in physics involving near-frictionless surfaces and deceleration.

Remember also that the level of damage that you will incur sliding off a road surface is dependent on the kinetic energy involved.  A 40 mph crash has four times the kinetic energy of a 20 mph crash, and sixteen times the kinetic energy of a 10 mph crash.  If you slide off the road at 10 mph, you may end up with some minor body work damage.  At 40 mph, you are likely going to need a tow, and possibly an ambulance.

Lots of people passed us; we passed very few.  Some of these were semis driving 50 on surfaces so slick that my daughter was driving 35.  A lot of cars passed us at speeds that seemed utterly insane--and we saw some consequences.

One was a minivan driving perhaps 20 miles per hour faster than us--and when we caught up to it about 20 miles later, it was off the road, rolled on its side, with considerable damage.   Oregon State Police were already on the scene.

Another was a BMW 5-series sedan that passed us at what seemed like a risky speed.  Within a few seconds, we saw both his tail lights and head lights as he executed a 360 degree pirouette, and ended up in the snowbank on the right.  It looked like he was going to need to be towed out--and I hope the tow truck driver brought a change of underwear, too.  It did not look there were any serious injuries, but we were not going to risk an accident by stopping, so I called 911 (from the back seat) to report the accident.

This was a very scary journey, and we did not end up home until about 2:30 AM this morning.  Perhaps because I was using muscles not ordinarily exercised, or the stress of the drive, or road food, I am feeling quite under the weather today.


  1. LOL.

    Some years ago I was in the middle of a freak winter storm that actually deposited a significant amount of snow on Cal-14 in the Antelope Valley area.

    I was travelling north at a prudent speed when a CHP car pulled up and started the weaving back and forth for a traffic break or escort. I was in the middle lane, watching the CHP car do it's thing.

    Suddenly on the left a BMW passed me at a pretty good clip. I was probably doing 40-50, he was doing a LOT more. Passed me, passed the CHP officer...and the lights went on.

    The BMW got about 50 yards in front of the CHP and spun out, into the center median. I don't know if anyone was hurt or not, I suspect not. The CHP officer was right on it, of course.

    As we drove past, we could see him getting out of the car, with a look of pure disgust on his face, as he shook his head back and forth.

    Later that day my Ford Taurus pulled a FEDEX delivery van out of a snowbank on the Randsberg cutoff :)

  2. I'm always amazed at the trucks driving 55 MPH on ice or snow floors.

  3. I hope you feel better quickly. I'd guess it's a combination of the stress and the food, or it could just be coincidence.

    A common misunderstanding is that AWD or 4WD means that you can drive as fast as you want on slick surfaces. This is emphatically not the case.

    That is an incredibly important concept that many people with 4WD vehicles don't understand. You can get yourself in trouble very quickly by driving too fast in slippery conditions. Like you, I take having to use 4WD as an indication to drive more slowly, not at regular highway speeds. Seems I end up passing a lot of people who sped by me just a bit earlier.

  4. That's two stories involving BMW drivers driving at unsafe speeds. I've heard other stories, usually involving SUV's. Makes me wonder... do the idiots who think "The laws of physics don't apply to me" tend to congregate to certain brands of cars -- expensive cars and/or large ones (SUV's, minivans, Hummers)? Or is the causality in the other direction: expensive and/or large cars have AWD, and idiots who don't understand the laws of physics will think "AWD means I can go fast safely"?