Driving can be frightening — even at a mere 2 mph

By Jayson Jacoby March 01, 2013 09:56 am

The biggest scare I’ve had while driving happened at 2 mph.

Which is a speed even a generally slothful person can easily manage while walking from the sofa to the kitchen to get a soda from the refrigerator.

But it felt to me like terminal velocity.

This exaggerated sense of my momentum had much to do with the nearly vertical slope that was separated from my left front tire by a sliver of snow-covered dirt road about the width of a skateboard.

Actually it had everything to do with that cliff.

 

That I was sliding toward this abyss at the pace of a particularly clumsy toddler, my knuckles, as the saying goes, turning white as I squeezed the steering wheel of my old Scout, mattered far less than the apparent inevitability of the matter.

I felt in that instant as helpless as a stone heaved over the brink of some terrible precipice.

Then my tires scratched out a brief bit of traction and I regained control just as suddenly as I had lost it.

I crept down the hill, gingerly toeing the brakes, until I reached one of the few flat spots on the Marble Creek Pass Road, my heart thudding as though I had just sprinted 100 yards.

(Well, maybe 50 yards; I never was much of a sprinter.)

I shoved the transmission lever into park and sat there for a few minutes, waiting for my respiration to return to its regular rate.

This episode happened about 15 years ago but I remember it with the unusual clarity that often accompanies our worst frights.

This propensity to recall near disasters so vividly seems to me more a curse than a blessing, but there you have it.

I think about that awful moment most often when I’m plodding along in low-range on a mountain road where the conditions, at least superficially, resemble those on that early winter day on Marble Creek.

But recently I had a different reason to recall the incident: I was researching the three-part series about driving hazards on Interstate 84 that the Herald and The Observer in La Grande published.

The two routes could hardly be more different, of course.

One is a four-lane freeway, lavishly maintained by a fleet of snowplows and other equipment.

The other is a Forest Service road that has felt the scrape of a bulldozer’s blade maybe a couple times since the Carter administration.

I-84 boasts some intimidating topography by highway standards, but Cabbage Hill and Ladd Canyon are gentle compared with the roughly 15-percent grade on Marble Pass where I had my low-speed ordeal.

(I write with some slight authority on the matter; one summer while working for the Forest Service I was the gofer for an engineer who was surveying the road. As I recall, the section of road I’ve referred to, which is near the switchback about a mile or so below the pass, is the steepest part.)

The commonality here isn’t the quality of the road, though, it’s the presence of a vehicle.

And specifically, the reality that when you’re driving one, regardless of the place (or your pace), things can go sideways pretty fast.

Literally sideways in many cases.

The statistic that surprised me most, as I pored over Oregon Department of Transportation reports for the section of I-84 between Pendleton and Ontario, is that fatal crashes on the freeway through the Blue Mountains are more common during the spring and summer than during winter.

The latter season, of course, is when the road is most frequently sheened with ice or cloaked in fog.

Or both.

I have more than once decided against driving to La Grande or Ontario because I didn’t want to negotiate Ladd Canyon or Three-Mile Hill during a storm.

On a sunny day in June, by contrast, the road conditions and weather would have no influence on my decision about whether to go.

The point, it seems to me, is that in describing a potential trip on the freeway, “easy” and “safe” aren’t synonymous.

Sure it’s easier on your nerves to drive on dry pavement in clear weather.

But statistically speaking, at least on our local freeway, it’s not safer.

This seems logical if you substitute physics for weather as the key factor. Everything else being equal, your chances of dying if you lose control at 65 mph would likely be higher than if you slide off the road at, say, 35.

In any case, the lesson ought to be an easy one for me to learn.

I thought I was done for at 2 mph.

I shouldn’t need an extra incentive to be careful at more than 30 times that speed.

Jayson Jacoby is editor

of the Baker City Herald.