The sky was blue and the sun glistened on hundreds of automobiles and trucks lined up bumper to bumper. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon on January 18, 2013. The snow storm was over. But it left 2 inches of slushy ice that was beginning to melt off automobiles and trucks. I was standing where I thought the center line might be, chatting with two truckers.
Jeb kicked a clump of ice with his cowboy boot and said, “I figure it will be sometime ‘fore things get to movin’. We stand a good chance of being here awhile.”
Tommy, a tanker driver, chimed in, “Temperature's dropping. We got about another hour or so and then this road is gonna be a skating rink.”
“Well, at least we ain't got no super truckers,” Jeb said. Tommy grinned and spat tobacco juice in the snow.
“What’s a super trucker?” I asked.
“That’s them fools that drive a rig 80 miles an hour. That’s probably one of ‘em thats got us blocked now. Or else a speedin’ four-wheeler decided to play a game of bumper cars. Damn it, it’s crazy to drive the like some folks do in this stuff!” replied Tommy. I would get to know Jeb and Tommy better in the cold and dark hours ahead.
My journey had started in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was snowing when I headed west in my little Honda Hybrid. Hours later, I would be thankful I had topped off my tank with fuel. I decided to keep a steady 50 mph speed. Traffic passed at 70 mph. I saw a few patches of slush but the snow didn’t seem to be sticking. I made Birmingham and pushed through traffic and picked up I-65 North.
I knew that if I could get beyond the steep hills 20 miles north of Cullman, I’d be ok. That didn’t happen. Just as I approached Cullman, the snow began to blow horizontal. And in just minutes, visibility dropped to a 100 yards. I reined in the Honda to 20 mph. That didn’t seem to bother drivers who continued to pass me at 50 to70 mph.
I decided to take the last exit to Cullman and sit it out. Maybe rent a motel room and catch up on some paperwork. As I approached the exit ramp, a speeding car cut in front of me in an effort to make the ramp. The driver lost control. The car missed the signage but took out a light pole and careened down a slight embankment before it stopped.
I maintained control by not instinctively hitting the brakes. But now I was past the ramp. Goodbye Cullman! The next exit was about 20 miles ahead. That turned out to be a very long 20 miles.
Several miles up the road, traffic slowed. It would move a few hundred yards and then stop. During the stops, people left their cars and trucks to exchange gossip about what was ahead. Some tried to climb the embankment next to the highway to relieve themselves. Few were successful. Many relieved themselves beside their cars or in between the big semi trucks.
As the shadows faded into evening, the roadway slush froze. Then nothing was able to move.
Jeb and Tommy would ask me later, if they could share their water or food with me. I had both, so I declined. I also had an emergency kit in the trunk with a blanket. I had boots and heavy clothes. Plus, I had a cell phone to let my family know where I was and that I was fine. Not everyone was so lucky.
Frankly, it was a frightening situation for many drivers. One lady exclaimed to me, “They just can’t leave us out here to freeze!” I called the Alabama Department of Transportation. I got a recording telling me it was no longer a working number and to call the Alabama state operator. The recording did not give a phone number for the state operator. I didn't let the lady know I could not connect. Later, she told me that she called local law enforcement. They told her that they were too busy with secondary road accidents to assist those stranded on I-65.
I didn’t see the first Alabama Highway Patrol car or emergency vehicles until about 8:30 PM. They were followed by heavy wreckers making their way down the north bound right-of-way. About 9:30 PM I heard a helicopter. It circled and I think landed somewhere up ahead. “Someone is injured. Gosh, and we’ve been in this same spot for 5 hours. Poor soul,” I thought.
I bundled up to sleep about 10:15 PM. At 12:30 AM, one of my new trucker friends knocked on the window, “Time to rock and roll, Bro! Stay behind us, and give us some room.”
I barely had time to get my car started when I heard the air horn of the lead truck let the other truckers know that we were on the move. That truck and another had successfully blocked the traffic for hours. This prevented more accidents from occurring. It also allowed the wrecks ahead to be cleared and jack-knifed trucks to be pulled to the side of the roadway. Then dump trucks traveled south in north bound lanes with loads of sand. They spread it for miles in front of us while we waited in our cars, oblivious to their efforts to help.This allowed all the stranded drivers to safely head north.
I set a new record for the drive from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to Nashville, Tennessee…18 hours! Typically, it is an easy four hour drive.
So what are the “take aways” from my experience?
- Be prepared! Keep an emergency kit in your car especially for winter driving. If you don’t know what one should contain here is a good list of the things to include in your auto emergency kit.
- Be cautious! My little Honda Hybrid performed well because I was very cautious. Some drivers of SUV’s with four-wheel drive ended up in the median because they did not adjust their driving to match the conditions.
- Educate yourself. Did you know it is more difficult to stop in slush than on snow? Here are some good winter driving tips and a little test of your winter driving know how.
- Be a Good Samaritan, like Jeb and Tommy. In an emergency, a kind word or small gesture goes a long way in calming the people around you.
- If you are in an accident, when it is safe to do so, report your claim to your insurance agent or company. Here is a free app that you can use to do that with your Iphone or Android. You do not have to be a customer of this insurance company to use this application. They should get a gold star for their generosity, don't you agree?
If you are one of our insureds, thank you for your business and be careful out there! We’ll be here, when you need us. If you are not a customer, but we sound like the kind of agents you’d like to have represent you, call us at 615-690-8859 or drop our personal auto specialist an email at Stefanie@insurancebutler.com.