By Randy Logsdon
It was about 10:30 in the morning on Jan. 12th and I was driving eastbound on U.S. Highway 62/180 between El Paso, Texas, and Carlsbad, N.M. The weather was mild and visibility was good. A section of that highway (about 100 miles) can be characterized as a remote rolling two-lane highway. The paved shoulders are full lane-widths and are equipped with rumble strips. It serves as the main route from El Paso to two national parks and southeast New Mexico. The posted speed limit over most of its length is 75 mph.
I’d set my cruise control to 75 and was traveling without incident as I approached one of those rolling hills. As I began the ascent, I spotted a semi-mounted tanker truck cresting the hill in the westbound lane. To the truck’s left, in the eastbound lane, was a black pick-up truck attempting to pass the tanker.
In hindsight, we have the luxury of stopping for a moment and considering the situation. Let’s access the risk. A tanker occupies the westbound lanes, probably traveling upwards of 65 mph. Two vehicles occupy the eastbound lanes one at 75 mph and the other at 75 mph or more. The relative speed of the two vehicles is something above 150 mph – closing on each other at over 220 ft. per second.
It’s difficult to estimate the distance between the two vehicles, but its clear that that distance is not enough for the pick-up to complete the pass. Movement to the westbound lane is not an option for either vehicle. The shoulder beside the eastbound lane, however is open and clear (no debris). If I move to the shoulder, I can avoid a head-on collision with the black pick-up truck.
Without immediate action, a head-on collision was imminent. There was not enough time to weigh the options. As soon as I recognized the hazard, I had to take action. My training kicked in. I immediately moved to the shoulder, slowed my vehicle, and checked for traffic to my rear (finding none). The scenario then got more complicated. The driver of the black pick-up also moved to the shoulder.
Although our relative speed had decreased, we were still destined for a head-on collision. Immediate action was required again. My training kicked in again. I steered half off the shoulder and onto the grassy apron (which fortunately was smooth and solid) and was prepared to leave the shoulder completely. The driver of the pick-up recognized that I was yielding the traffic lane and returned (westbound) to the eastbound lane. There was no collision.
How often have you heard testimony from someone (possibly a first responder) who acted decisively and successfully in a critical situation? Invariably, the comment will be something like: “There wasn’t time to think, I guess my training kicked in.” How well are we each prepared to handle that critical situation? Do we have the training to kick in?
From my high school years in driver education the concept of responding to the situation I just experienced was drilled into me: “Always go right.” It’s a very simple rule and not one that I’ve practiced very much. But, at the moment that I needed it, I remembered to “Go Right.” I responded correctly almost by instinct. In fact, I really didn’t think about the situation or the potential consequences until well after the critical moments had passed.
Highway risks are not the only critical situations we are likely to encounter. Consider what is the proper response if you find yourself behind the wheel of a haul truck traveling downhill without power or brakes? What if the loader’s motor catches fire? How will you react if someone gets caught in a moving conveyor? These critical situations (like the impending head-on collision) require an immediate correct response. Lives are at stake. None are situations that we can (or would want to) practice, or even simulate. Yet, the correct action is critical.
Perhaps the key to ensuring that correct action is to formulate a plan in advance based on one simple question: “What if . . .?” Follow-up each “What if?” with an effective mitigating strategy. What action or actions will offer the best protection? Condense that into a simple rule like “Always go right.” Then repeat that rule over and over. Drill that response into each affected person’s head until the response is automatic. In other words, Drill Baby Drill.