Winter night driving

Coming home to Fort McMurray yesterday after spending a few days in Edmonton with family, I rediscovered where my hate lies when it comes to driving in the winter.  That feeling of angst, horrible anticipation, morbid fear crept up as the sun slunk away beyond the distant hills.

Driving in the daytime in the winter is fine.  I don't mind the cold, nor a little snow.  You can easily see the hazards and vehicles, both coming and going.  Even a howling blizzard is somewhat palatable if you have enough light on the situation.

My disdain for being the navigator of a private vehicle in the dark in the winter has nothing to do with the highway, or the drivers on the road - be they overly aggressive or cautiously conservative like myself.  It has everything to do with the optics of the situation - what you can see, or more specifically, what you can't.

We were fortunate last night as none of our region's wild critters decided to dart across the highway during our dash home.  They can be incredibly hard to avoid in the light of day, but, at night you can only rely on a set of glowing eyes to tip you off that danger is near.

Once the sun goes down, it becomes near to impossible to discern where the lines are on the road.  That becomes the number one area of focus, as staying between the centre line and the shoulder line ensures that you are in the safety sweet spot.  Concurrently, you need to be thinking about making adjustments for semi-trailers.

There were no shortage of those yesterday afternoon as we dipped into darkness around Wandering River and began the final two hour stretch to the finish line.  At times they would be coming at us, one after another in a seemingly endless cavalcade, while several more were chomping on our rear, waiting for a passing lane or a break in the traffic to pass.

In my mind, I am not a speeder nor a slow poke.  But, truth to fact, you can drive fast enough for some of the people some of the time and most of the people some of the time. But you can't drive fast enough for all of the people all of the time.  As I stick to the posted speed limit, or within a digit or two or three of it, I tend to get passed a lot.

On three separate occasions on that short jaunt home between Wandering River and Fort McMurray, I drove by three different vehicles that had been left, parked on the shoulder - no hazard lights or fluorescent road markers to indicate that they were lying ahead.  In all three cases, I saw them in that millisecond as I drove by.  But, what if, at that same moment, I had veered right to adjust for an over-sized load.  We would have had a direct collision with a very heavy stationary object and who knows if I would have survived to be writing this blog.

As I white-knuckled it home, with the precious cargo of my wife and sons, my senses were on full alert and my imagination was running wild with "what would happen if...".  So, what did I learn?

First, every vehicle should  be mandated to carry some form of fluorescent road markers, just in case you need to pull over to deal with mechanical issues.  In three cases yesterday, those folks were literally taking their lives into their hands, and the lives of every person driving by.

Second, it is critical to ensure that all of our visibility tools are functional: headlight covers clean, windshield washer fluid topped up and all your mirrors clear and well-positioned.

Finally, consider planning your winter driving trip around the daylight hours, as short as they are.  If you want to take the safest, most controllable route, that is the way to go.

When we were kids, my Mom would say the same thing as we turned that final corner on to Second Street in Kamsack, Saskatchewan after a road trip: "Thank you Lord for guiding our way", or something of that ilk.  I always found it rather embarrassing and cringed at the thought of having non-family members in the car to hear it.  Frankly, I thought it was over-dramatic and unnecessary.

As I pried my fingers from the steering wheel after pulling into the driveway shortly after 6 pm yesterday, I felt overwhelming gratitude for having successfully run the gauntlet and delivered my precious cargo home.  All of a sudden, I completely understood and appreciated the words of my mother all those decades ago.  Not only were they packing a larger load - I come from a large family of 6 kids - they were transporting the family across the country in the era before air bags and mandatory seat belts.  If I was in her seat, knowing then what we know now, I'd be thanking the Lord, too.


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