The time between when I hit the ice and then hit the snowbank was no more than 4 seconds.
On Friday morning, I was driving up Hwy 151 to work, as I do 5 days a week. It had snowed very lightly the night before, and the traffic dude on WIBA cautioned the commuters between Columbus and Beaver Dam in particular, where there had apparently been a number of minor accidents.
I’m not one to drive recklessly on my way in to work, but I’m not very likely to drive as slow as some of the folks out there after a dusting, either. Traffic was moving along fairly well in the northbound lanes of 151, and I wasn’t far off my usual time when I cruised by the Columbus exits. I was coming up on Beaver Dam in short order. The road had some snow-dusty spots, but for the most part, I could see the pavement. The cars in the right lane were going slow for a 65-mph highway; they were topping out somewhere between 64 and 68. I usually go about 75 in this area (I live by a 10-over rule).
I passed a small sedan and carefully eased my car back into the right lane. The traffic guy was usually a little over-the-top with his cautionary tales on a typical winter morning, and this was looking to be no exception. I was probably less than 20 seconds ahead of the last car I passed when I felt the front of the car begin to swerve.
It’s kind of amazing how many thoughts go through your head in the short period of time between losing control of a vehicle and coming to a screeching halt. As the front of the car began to sway, my first thought was, Whoa, OK, ease off the gas, keep it straight, slow down, but that was over really quickly when it became apparent that reducing speed was doing nothing. They say you shouldn’t try to over-correct when your car begins to swerve, but it’s that split-second loss of control that makes you involuntarily do it; letting off the gas and holding the wheel straight doesn’t change the car’s momentum, and so you naturally pull the wheel harder and start to brake.
The back end swung out next, and I fought the wheel for another half-second, before realizing that the car was not staying on the road. My next thought was just that: OK, I’m going off the road. I put my hands firmly at 10 and 2 on the wheel, and I straightened up in my seat. I could see the snowbank on the right side of the highway, and the post with a reflector just ahead. Although I was on a highway with numerous cars not too far behind me, I thought nothing of them.
Then I thought, Wow, I always sort of wondered what it would be like to be in a real accident. Technically, my first accident was when I was 15. It was hunting season and I ran into my sister’s Mercury Tracer with the hunting wagon; a ’78 Ford Bronco with a 4×4 for a front bumper. A few years later, I was behind the wheel of the Tracer when a high school kid who just learned how to drive rear-ended me, without any significant damage. A few years after that, I was almost in a multi-car pile-up on College Ave in Appleton; this time, it was me and my Festiva that did the damage-less rear-ending. None of those felt like much of an accident, though. Cars were moving too slowly. Damage was never that noteworthy. This time, I was moving at highway speed.
My next thought, as I saw the snowbank screaming up to meet me was, I wonder how far I’ll go over the snowbank. It was so low, after all, and I was probably still moving at close to 70 miles an hour. There was no WAY that a little snowbank like that, no more than a couple feet high, was going to keep me from careening into the ditch. That lead me to think, I’ll probably get to use my medical insurance. Michelle has been saying I should take advantage of all that fabulous coverage I pay for and never use. After that, it was I have kind of wanted to shop for a new car, and then, I wonder if it will hurt to roll over in this thing. A good thought to have, I think, was, God, this would be a stupid way to die. Then just before the bank overtook me, I thought, Brace for impact.
The right front of my Mazda hit the snowbank first. It sort of bounced as the back end swung out toward the road and quickly spun around. Then I felt the left rear hit the snow, and front swung around again, before smacking the snowbank a second time and wedging firmly in. I looked up and noticed that I had missed the reflector post, and just beyond that, a bigger highway sign. It wasn’t a major highway-speed accident, but that’s a good thing.