Dashboard Confidential
Mother Nature and the Lone Star State

By Dave Sweetman, columnist

For the second weekend in a row, I have been at the mercy of Mother Nature in the great state of Texas. Yes, I know. It’s winter and the weather gets bad. It happens every year. I’m no sissy when it comes to driving in snow and crap conditions, but to steal a phrase from Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Even more important, the limitations of those driving around me and that’s the scary part.

Heading west around Dallas, with scheduled deliveries in California I knew I was about to hit major storms head-on. Thanks to satellite radio and the Weather Channel on TV, I figured if I made Weatherford, I’d assess road conditions and park if I needed to. Freezing rain coated bridges and overpasses and snow on top of that. I parked and watched it on TV, soon finding out I made the right choice. I hate wasting time with a loaded truck but in this case 36 hours delay was cheap insurance.

When I finally got rolling, the farther west I went there were cars, pickup trucks and big rigs wrecked and abandoned. Through Abilene and out through Pecos I saw one crash after another, several so gruesome I said a prayer for those inside. Very sobering, indeed. Drivers going the other way talked of road closures, close calls, or being sideswiped or worse.

The storm had passed, the sun came out, and travel was back to normal. I felt a bit vindicated for chickening out and letting Mommy Nature have her fun. Talking with a sheriff’s deputy at a fuel stop, he told me that Texas had logged more than 1,700 calls for wrecks and fender benders along the I-20 and I-10 corridor. The rest of the trip was uneventful, and I delivered, reloaded and headed east again on I-10.

It was a good plan until I got to El Paso. The cold from up north and the moisture from the south mixed to once again make Texas a traveler’s nightmare. My trip was to take me to Austin, to Atlanta and then to Florida. Stopping in El Paso, the weather reports were showing another round of icy bridges, wrecks and treacherous conditions.

Once again, should I stay or should I go? It can’t be that bad can it? It was. I chose to take my 34-hour restart and watch it on the tube. Another good call, I was to find out later.

When the weather cleared and conditions improved again, wrecks, abandoned vehicles littered the median and ditches. One big rig ran down between the bridge abutments and crashed below the interstate, freight scattered everywhere and the rig destroyed. I said another prayer for those onboard.

And then it occurred to me, nearly every one of the big trucks I saw wrecked were the big fleets. The ones who are governed, use satellite dispatch, have onboard log recorders, and use all the newest technology to make trucking safer. The same ones who pass me in a 45-mph construction zone doing 68. The same ones who cannot stay in their own lane because they didn’t teach that in the driving academy. The same ones who ride nose-to-tail with other trucks because their engines are governed to pace a turtle. The same ones who take nine miles to pass another castrated truck that won’t increase or decrease speed a few mph to allow the pass.

The same trucks you see every time there is a scene of bad weather or traffic pileups on TV. This was again witnessed by the 135-vehicle pileup on I-94 in Michigan. A whiteout, they said. So when does common sense kick in and say, “SLOW THE TRUCK DOWN!” When does the company/dispatcher say to the driver that if it’s too bad to go safely, then park it?

I don’t need a mechanical conscience to tell me what the seat of my pants knows better.

I do know my limitations, but those who don’t, scare me. LL