eleven seconds
You’re driving along the highway when suddenly the wind picks up and blows the snow right at your windshield. The road is covered with snow so it’s hard to see where the road-edge is, so you slow your Nissan to 40MPH and join the other vehicles in a kind of slow-moving convoy. You stay close enough to the car ahead of you, a station wagon, to keep it in sight and stay on the road, and you notice a light truck behind you doing the same thing. You’re about ten minutes away from the next town. But the view of the station wagon ahead is obliterated by another snow squall, and for several minutes you’re driving blind. You think about pulling over but are afraid if you do the vehicles behind you won’t see you and will plow into you. You notice there are no vehicles coming the other way.

And then the squall slows and you see a long dark shadow ahead. A long line of cars 400 feet ahead. Stopped.

time = 0 seconds:
You’re young, and alert, and it only takes you 2/3 of a second to hit the brakes. You have snow tires, but you’re on a raised bridge and it’s icy. You’re skidding, but staying straight.

time = 1 second:
59 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. The guy in the truck behind you sees your brake lights and it then takes him 2/3 of a second to hit his brakes. He’s 60 feet behind you, about 7 car-lengths.

time = 2 seconds:
114 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. The guy behind you is getting closer.

time = 3 seconds:
164 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. You remember that on dry roads a small car can brake from 40MPH — that’s 60 feet per second — to zero in 3 seconds, decelerating at 20 feet per second squared. It seems like 3 minutes since you started sliding. The wind’s picked up and you lose sight of the line of cars ahead. You no longer know if you’re going straight.

time = 4 seconds:
208 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. It looms back into sight, half as far away as when you first noticed it, but you still think you can stop in time. You start thinking crazy things: steer into the ditch, slowly? No, you’re still going what feels like 25MPH, too fast. You’d spin anyway, probably. Would the emergency brake help?

time = 5 seconds:
246 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. The truck behind you is now only 3 car lengths behind you, and closing. You decide that’s his problem — nothing you can do.

time = 6 seconds:
280 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. You know you can stop in time, now.

time = 7 seconds:
307 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. About 17MPH. It’s like time is slowing to a stop.

time = 8 seconds:
329 feet since you saw the blockage ahead. But the truck is right on your ass.

time = 9 seconds:
Half way into the 9th second the truck hits you. It’s going at 18MPH and you’re going 10MPH, but it feels like much more than an 8MPH impact. Your foot is shaking on the brake pedal.

time = 10 seconds:
You’re braced to get hit again but it doesn’t happen. The truck’s right behind you and you’re afraid the impact will push you into the station wagon, 26 feet ahead of you.

time = 11 seconds:
You stop 12 feet shy of the station wagon. The truck hits you again, but just nudges you ahead four feet. You’re both stopped. The station wagon has kids in the back, unbuckled. The driver of the station wagon pulls ahead to the side of the road.

time = 16 seconds:
A cop knocks on your window. He screams, hysterically. He tells you to put your car in the ditch, walk to the front of the pileup alongside the ditch. He says if the guy behind you had been a semi or a Jeep, you’d be dead. He repeats the same message to the driver behind you. You don’t understand why he told you this. He’s preparing himself for the next vehicle coming along, for the worst.

You drive into the shallow ditch, grab your winter clothes and climb out. You walk behind the station wagon family, beside the driver who hit you with his truck. He’s just old enough to drive and you know the insurance company’s going to raise his premiums sky-high, but you’re numb and cold and don’t know what to say so you just exchange license and insurance information. You pass 20 vehicles in the pile-up, including two trucks with small cars wedged partly underneath them. When you get to the front you’re surprised that there’s emergency vehicles everywhere, and none of the passengers from the front vehicles is in sight. You’re ushered into a waiting tow truck and he says to write down you plate number and that he’ll drop you at the police station in town and you’ll be paged when your car’s been towed.

You keep going over the 11 seconds again and again, asking the tow truck driver if you should have done something different. He says the first collision happened nearly half an hour before yours, and there’ll be more. Happens every winter on that bridge, he says. The cop saw you stop in time, you’re home free, he says. At the police station, you fill out the accident report, and stand in line to file it.


This happened to me thirty years ago, the only accident in my thirty-seven years of driving. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Reading the article last week by Malcolm Gladwell on the safety of SUVs, and driving yesterday morning on a snowy highway with poor visibility brought it all back. For thirty years, whenever the weather gets bad, I’ve been checking out who’s driving behind me.

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7 Responses to ELEVEN SECONDS

  1. Sean says:

    Thanks for this gripping analysis, Dave. This is my first winter of driving in snowy/ icy conditions, and though I consider myself quite a safe driver, this post is a wonderful reminder that I have to be cognizant and responsive to how others are driving– Lord knows there are plenty of people on the road driving big vehicles who think they are safer and more in control than they actually are.

  2. Rayne says:

    Wow, Dave. Hope some people slow down a LOT in winter conditions after they read this.I had a near-miss a couple years ago; I swear I must have had an angel watching because I should have been killed. I was stopped at a light on a bright, sunny day after a big storm; the fallen snow was dry and blowing in gusts from time to time, perfect conditions for occasional white-outs and snow-blindness. Out of nowhere a big SUV passes me fast on the right, plowing through and throwing up a lot of snow.Only I’m IN THE RIGHT LANE. He’s OFF THE ROAD.He comes to a stop on what is a snow-covered field; he is now stuck. I am puzzled by this, but it slowly dawns on me this guy was going too fast (like 50 or 60 mph), coming up behind me, realized too late that I was stopped (the drifting snow may have cut down visibility) and he had to off-road to avoid hitting me from the rear.The air bag wouldn’t have been enough protection as fast as he was going.Slow down, people. And 4-wheel drive is NO assurance that you can stop in a hurry. When all 4 wheels have no traction, you can’t stop.So glad you are here to tell us this one, Dave.

  3. Philip says:

    Nicely written piece Dave. A good reminder to people this time of year. Note there were no SUV’s involved in this accident 30 years ago. I might add that everyone should have some sort of accesible emergency beacon that can be deployed after an accident or in case you need to pull off the road during periods of reduced visibility.Flares are the cheapest option I know of but they do require some knowlege to handle and store properly. Battery powered strobe lights are available but require you to check the battery state on at least a semi-annual basis. Cold is death for conventional batteries if you live in a cold weather area.Some of these strobe lights can be seen in the thickest fog even in daylight. Flares need to be placed at intervals upstream in the traffic flow. Flares are often used even in wet snowy daylight conditions. If you have nevr used a flare you may want to get some training or experiment with one just to be sure you know how to light them and how to hold them safely. (The movie flare is a different animal).I am glad that you are still with us Dave.On the whole no one should drive in blizzard conditions if you must drive or are caught unawares then drive with care. A responsible individual needs to be prepared in snow country that something will go wrong.

  4. Steve says:

    Good reminder Dave. As I’ve told my son five hundred times(sometimes it’s fun to bug him): CFC…compensate for conditions

  5. Stu Savory says:

    Had a similar one about 20 years ago. I managed to stop 10 feet before the end of the pile up. Got out of the car, fell over on mirrorlike ice, then looked up and saw the artic coming down the hill!I scrabbled somehow into the ditch myself. The artic cleared the whole pileup off the road just like he was playing pool. Close one that, never forget it.

  6. Rayne says:

    Oh my, Stu, that’s almost as harrowing as Dave’s description!I’d forgotten to add that I don’t know what I would have done had I actually seen the SUV in my rear window. Would you have done something different, Stu, had you seen the artic sooner? Can’t remember where I learned this — it could be wrong, too. But a good driver is supposed to check the rear view mirror every 4 to 30 seconds. It’s helped me over the years, but there will be some events that simply can’t be helped once entered. I think Dave’s might have been one of those “twilight zone”-like episodes where it wouldn’t have mattered, he’s required to relive it. Just as I’ll always wonder about the circumstances of that SUV…

  7. Stu Savory says:

    Hi Rayne,1) Had I seen the pile-up AND the truck behind me, I like to think I would have deliberately headed across the road into the level field on the other side. I am also a motorcyclist (3 accidents in 45 years), and one of the things to practice is ‘an escape route’ in case you’re not going to make the corner; that’s taught at advanced safety-schools here in Germany.2) My mirrorchecking habits are different depending on what I’m driving. In the car I check before pulling out, changing direction or even braking really hard. On the bike I scarcely use it, no-one is going to be overtaking me :-) BTW: for some fast biking stuff, go read my : http://home.egge.net/~savory/nurburgring.htmStu

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