Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Out Like a Lion; or, How I Nearly Died Four Times in One Commute

It was my fault. I almost thought something along the lines of Sucks to be them as I watched the morning news yesterday about the heavy rainfall and terrible flooding in parts of the Northeastern U.S. somewhat farther to the "north" and "east" than Northeastern Pennsylvania. We were in the clear. Safe and dry. The local weatherman confirmed it.

When I woke up at 2:00 in the afternoon I was wondering what the sizzling noise outside was.

Turns out it was sleet mixed with rain. Great, just great.

I left for work early, but not as early as I should have. The rain turned to snow almost immediately, but the roads weren't too bad - until I hit the whiteout in Plains Township, about halfway to work. The snow was coming down hard and heavy, and I was trying to remember why I was just thinking about when it would be time to pull out the lawnmower earlier in the day.

The road was a mess. Traffic was a mess. We were going through a construction zone, one that was just rearranged less than a week ago. Traffic has been bad through this zone all rotation, stop-and-go during the best weather. Having nearly an inch of slush on the ground did not help, especially with the "stop" part of stop-and-go. I was smart enough to leave sufficient braking distance between the front of my car and the back end of the car in front of me, but twice traffic came to a complete stop - and my car didn't. Fortunately I lost momentum before plowing into the car in front of me, or shimmying off the side of the highway. Twice.

We got free of that fairly quickly, and the weather improved dramatically farther along the way. Still, I was wary of getting swamped by the walls of slush being thrown up by passing tractor-trailers - it happened once before, and I wound up taking an unintended exit off the highway. So I was a little worried as I was pulling up to a car pulling a camper behind it - was it tossing off enough slush to be a problem?

I didn't think that the problem might come from above. Namely, from the overpass that we were both passing under.

I don't know if the sheet of slush that inundated me was tossed off by a tractor-trailer or actually thrown off the side of the bridge by a plow passing over. At that moment it didn't matter to me, blinded as I was by all the slush landing on my windshield. My wipers did nothing to clear it for a few passes, and I was briefly concerned that they might have been broken by the force of the impact. But eventually visibility returned, and I continued along without blindly careening into a bridge support or fellow traveller.

After that it looked to be smooth sailing. I was running late but might, just might, make it to work on time. I called in to work (using my hands-free phone, of course) and advised them that if I didn't hit any more traffic backups or weather issues there was definitely a very slim chance I might not be late.

The highway was clear up to Scranton, though there was a phantom backup there - possibly an echo of a traffic issue from minutes before and miles away. But I made it through that, too, without losing too much time. My best hope tho make up time was the Casey Highway, the "new" highway (about twelve years old now, I think) that puts me within half a mile of work.

I forgot that, as a "new" highway, the Casey Highway gets low priority for salting, snow plowing, everything. So even though the weather didn't seem too bad there, the highway was a complete mess.

I was passing a slow-moving vehicle when my car made an odd noise. The tone of the engine went high as though I were accelerating dramatically even though my speed remained the same. Oh my God, I'm hydroplaning, I thought. My tires were no longer in contact with the road surface, but were spinning freely on a low-friction layer of water and slush. Only my momentum was keeping me going. And if the tires bit back into the pavement while the engine was racing the way it was, I would spin off completely out of control.

I remembered everything I had learned about dealing with this. I took my foot off the gas and kept it the hell away from the brake. I gripped the wheel tightly. I thought about nothing else. Within a few seconds the sounds and vibrations of the car had returned to normal, and I resumed my drive at a lower rate of speed. Screw it, I thought. I already told 'em I might be late. No point in getting killed going to work.

I punched in at 6:00.

They're not calling for any sort of precipitation today. We'll see what happens.

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