I read, somewhere, driving in a Minnesota snowstorm is a guessing game at best; you don’t really know if you’re in your lane, driving on the sidewalk, or across a lake! Truer words were never spoken, at least not between October and May in northern Minnesota. The secret is knowing your limits; when you can handle it and when you should consider staying off the road.
The other day I was in Wisconsin, homeward bound on Highway 53, a four-lane road. With over 100 miles left to go, it was pushing midnight and I was heading into a snowstorm. A storm the weather forecasters promised to be a big one. The roads were getting slick but the visibility was still good, so I kept going.
Posted speed limits become irrelevant in such conditions. Other driver’s on the road have a wide range of driving skills and a 65 miles-per-hour speed limit certainly does not mean it’s safe to drive that fast. There’s an old saying: anyone going slower than me is an obstacle; a hazard on the roadway. Anyone going faster than me is a maniac! I was meeting both.
I was comfortable running at 50 mph, keeping a safe distance behind the car in front of me, who was doing about the same speed. Ahead of him, there were some slower moving vehicles. He was approaching them too fast. I felt something bad was going to happen, so I slowed down, backing way off. He changed lanes to pass the slower cars, but one of them had the same idea at the same time. They played bumper cars, bouncing off one another and spinning out. It appeared no one was hurt, so I drove on.
A bit later a semi, probably doing 60 or 65, passed me. Some cars were only doing 35 mph. I thought they were going too slow, but if that is the speed where they were comfortable and felt safe, so be it. I just hoped these “hazards” would be home and off the road soon. If that semi flies up behind one of those cars going that much slower, he’s not going to be able to stop. I thought to myself, “What a maniac!” The snow was coming down heavier and visibility was falling with it.
Sometimes, when it’s snowing really hard or if you’re behind a semi, or worse yet, a snowplow, you end up in a complete whiteout. With no visibility, you find yourself guided by the taillights of the vehicle in front of you, because they are the only thing you can see. Not knowing who you’re following, this can be dangerous. You need to be careful.
In the distance ahead, as I was nearing the city of Superior, a barrage of flashing red, blue, and amber lights from emergency vehicles put on a colorful show. The usually intense, harsh lights were defused by the falling snow, blending the colors together softly, creating an image that looked like a dancing, colorful cotton ball. Danger lurked ahead so I slowed down.
When I got closer, I saw a semi tractor-trailer had veered off the highway into a deep ravine. The shoulders of the road were higher than the top of his cab and sleeper. The big rig was upright and it almost looked like he intended to drive there. A large box straight truck with tandem rear axles was in the same ravine right behind the semi. The second truck didn’t drive nearly as far into the ditch because the semi’s trailer stopped him.
Considering the poor visibility, I would imagine this was one of those cases where the second truck was in a whiteout, only seeing the taillights of the first. When the semi careened off the road, the second driver, with blind faith, naturally followed…right off the road.
Again, I am not going to criticize the second driver. I have been in similar situations in a line of cars where each driver was following the red taillights of the vehicle in front of them. We were all driving with blind faith totally dependent on what the lead vehicle did.
I gave a few toots on the horn as I passed the big sign: “Minnesota Welcomes You.” Yay! Only sixty more miles of this nasty stuff, then I would be home. The snowstorm was becoming more intense and driving conditions were deteriorating. If the roads were this bad on I-35 through Duluth, I could only imagine what Highway 61 would be like: a two-lane road that parallels the lakefront going toward my house.
I heard my wife’s voice telling me, “Go to a motel. Stay in Duluth tonight.” Uncertain of the highway conditions ahead, I followed her advice with blind faith. I could safely drive home in the morning once the snowplows had a chance to clear the roads. Afterall, the secret to driving in a Minnesota snowstorm is knowing your limits; when you can handle it and when you should consider getting off the road…sidewalk, or lake.
Tom can be reached for comment at Facebook.com/Tom.palen.98
a broadcaster, pilot, writer, and our Guest Columnist!