Postmortem: Nearly an Accident

Last weekend, driving back from the ski hill, I came extremely close to getting in an accident. This is a postmortem of what happened so that I can improve my driving and others can learn from my mistakes.

What Happened

I was driving a 2-lane mountain road with a speed limit of 55mph. There was a line of traffic, with me in it, going approximately 55-60mph. The roads were a bit wet, but it wasn’t actively precipitating. The temperature was well above freezing.

After going across a bridge, there was a moderately sharp right turn. I slowed to 50-55mph to make the turn but, due to the sides on the bridge, I couldn’t see around the bend. As I completed the turn, I was faced with the car in front of me making a sudden right turn onto the shoulder where there were other vehicles already stopped. That left two completely stopped cars in front of me, with the right shoulder filled with vehicles. The front-most car was stopped to make a left turn.

I emergency braked, but knew I didn’t have enough distance to stop. After seeing the shoulder filled with cars, I looked to the oncoming lane. A car was just passing the two stopped cars. Looking farther down the road I saw another oncoming vehicle, but it was still some distance away.

I took the opportunity and went into the oncoming lane, maintaining enough speed to quickly pass the two stopped cars before getting back into my lane. I didn’t get into an accident and the rest of the drive back was uneventful.

What Went Wrong

I am firmly of the belief that most accidents are avoidable, particularly with defensive driving, and this encounter was no exception. This close call should never have happened.

I generally am extremely good at driving defensively, but my judgement lapsed in this instance and I almost paid the price. These are the parts of defensive driving that I failed to follow:

  • I was driving exclusively based on the car in front of me, not the road ahead. This lead to the next two failures.
  • I was following too close for the speed I was traveling. I should have had more distance between me and the car in front of me, hopefully giving me more time to realize what was happening and come to a controlled stop.
  • I was traveling too fast for the sight lines available. Due to the bridge blocking my view of the road ahead, I should have slowed down significantly more for the turn so that I was prepared to stop if needed.

The last one is of particular importance. If I had not made that last mistake, I would have come to a quick, but controlled stop.

What Went Right

Since I didn’t end up in an accident, obviously I did some things right. In fact, I would say almost everything went right once I was in the emergency and had to react:

  • My hands immediately went to “10 and 2”. While you are supposed to drive with your hands at “10 and 2”, this is unfeasible for long drives. Instead, I drive with one hand at either “10” or “2” and the other on my knee, ready to react as they successfully did in this instance.
  • I acknowledged the stopped vehicle ahead of me, but didn’t lock my vision. Instead, I scanned for escape routes, finding one in the oncoming lane. I then focused on that escape route, allowing me to avoid the vehicle as opposed to driving into it; you always go where you look.
  • I braked successfully. As I started to look for escape routes, my foot hit the brakes. I felt ABS activate and started threshold braking. Once I had my escape route, I fully released the brake, maximizing grip when turning.
  • Once in the oncoming lane I didn’t brake again so that I could maintain speed and get back into my lane as quickly as possible.
  • I minimized the amount I turned, purposely coming close to clipping the back corner of the stopped car, but ensuring I didn’t. This contributed to my truck not feeling out of control through the entire maneuver, minimizing the risk of a slide or rollover.

As all of this happened extremely quickly, over a period of just a few seconds, these actions were instinctual. The only thing I technically did wrong was not looking in my rearview mirror before emergency braking, but I consider this a minor fault as nothing I could have seen would have changed my actions.

Lessons Learned

This was a strong reminder to always drive defensively. While the cars in front of me made similar mistakes, those mistakes would not have propagated to me if I had been driving defensively. Specifically, I should have:

  • Been looking farther down the road to be aware of the change in sightlines earlier on.
  • Lowered my speed given the reduced sightlines.
  • Maintained a greater distance to the car in front of me.

From that, a more general lesson can be learned or reinforced: always assume there is a stopped vehicle or other obstacle just beyond your line of sight and ensure your speed is low enough to be able to stop in time. Increase your line of sight by looking past the vehicle in front of you, if possible.

A large part of the reason I evaded the accident was that my instincts reacted appropriately. A reason for this is that I always practice the behavior I want to see in emergency driving in my daily driving. For example, I always take my foot off the brake when turning; have practiced hard braking in safe, snowy conditions to understand how my truck behaves at the limit; and am always looking for escape routes as I drive, just in case I need one.

Drive safe out there and remember to always drive defensively. While you may get there a few minutes slower, it’s better than risking not getting there at all.