By Chief Warrant Officer 4 Benjamin Williams, Joint Base Pearl Harbor/Hickam Air Force BaseFebruary 6, 2017
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Feb. 6, 2017) - The PCS gods had smiled upon me and I had orders from Fort Rucker to Korea with a follow-on assignment in Hawaii. "What a deal," I thought. I'll just drive my Jeep Wrangler to California and have it shipped to Hawaii, where it can be waiting for me. And, to boot, during the drive, I'll stop in Salt Lake City for a few days to visit my daughter.
I'd driven cross-country three times in the past and thought I knew my limits. I particularly enjoyed driving at night because there was less traffic. However, in the past there was at least one other person in the vehicle with me. This time I would be going solo.
All went well until I got to Denver. There I'd planned to get off Interstate 70 West and go north on I-25. Ultimately, I intended to go west on I-80 and then take I-84 to Salt Lake City. I was feeling pretty good when I got to Denver and it was still daylight, so I decided to continue on. If I kept my pace, I figured I could make it to Salt Lake City by early evening.
But wouldn't you know it; things didn't quite go as planned. Maybe I was daydreaming, but somehow I missed my turn onto I-25. By the time I caught my mistake, I had already gone 25 miles. As I looked at the map, I figured I'd lose too much time going back. And if I continued on I-70 West, I'd be going too far south. So what could I do?
I looked at the map and saw a highway through the mountains that would take me to Salt Lake City. I decided to take it - thinking I might make it to Salt Lake City even sooner than originally planned. Unfortunately, I was way off on that calculation. Just because a highway is on a map doesn't mean it's a major road. The highway went through several towns, and with the resultant stop lights and stop signs, it was much slower going than on the interstate. By the time I got to the Colorado-Utah border, the sun had gone down and it was already past my original arrival time. At least the highway had transitioned to four lanes with a faster speed limit. I finally made it to the Utah side and was driving down a mountain. I figured everything was still going to work out and that I'd get to visit with my daughter that night. That is, until it started to snow.
My headlights were little help. They only illuminated the area about 50 feet in front of me, and using my high beams didn't help. To mitigate my risks, I slowed to 35 mph. However, now I was losing time; so, since no one else was on the road, I decided to speed up a little. As I pushed down on the gas pedal, I lost control and the Jeep began sliding. I spun 1.5 times and wound up facing the wrong direction. Good thing no one else was on the road.
After I got myself together, I turned around and started driving again. As before, I started out slowly and, as my confidence increased, so did my speed. After all, I was in four-wheel-drive vehicle. I thought that would keep me out of trouble. All was going well until I increased to about 35 mph and started spinning again - only this time it was worse than before. As I tried to regain control, I glanced to the right and saw it was pitch black and there weren't any guardrails. Apparently, there was a drop off on the right side of the road and I was heading toward it. I figured I was about to launch into a giant black hole when, suddenly, there was a jolt and loud thud.
Thankfully, the Jeep stopped. I'd struck a cement barrier on the highway's shoulder - the last impediment before I would've launched into the wild dark yonder. Once my heart began beating again, I got out to assess the situation and the damage to my Jeep. I'd hit the first barrier only about two feet from where it began. How lucky was that! If not for the barrier, I'd have gone down a very steep slope. The Jeep would've probably rolled and everything inside bounced around and knocked me unconscious. Who knows how long it would have been before someone found me.
The damage to my Jeep was limited to having the left-rear tube bumper bent in about 4 inches. This event could've ended up much worse; but the truth is this didn't even have had to happen in the first place. Fortunately, I survived and gained some useful lessons learned.
First, I should've stayed on the interstates as planned. Even though the distance may be farther by traveling on an interstate, the higher speed limits and lack of cross traffic, stop signs and signals make them safer and often quicker. Second, check the weather before you head out and have some emergency supplies in your vehicle just in case you get stranded. Third, check how your vehicle handles in the snow. Understand that just because you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle doesn't mean you'll always be able to maintain traction on slippery roads. Fourth, let someone know your route and inform them of any changes you make along the way. And finally - as I learned the hard way - don't be in a rush and drive fatigued. You might end up missing your destination - permanently.
Knowledge magazine is always looking for contributing authors to provide ground, aviation, driving and off-duty safety articles. Don't let the fact that you've never written an article for publication scare you. Our editors promise to make you look good. By sharing your knowledge, you can make a valuable contribution to those who need your information to do their jobs safely. Your article might just save another Soldier's life. To learn more, visit https://safety.army.mil/MEDIA/Knowledge/TellYourStory.aspx.