Into the Great White Open; navigating whiteouts and other seasonal nuances

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I wanted to skip talking about winter driving until next year, but another difficult week on the big road involving a slough of tractor trailer collisions has got me thinking. My nightly Toronto-Kingston switches have been a challenge at times this season. The Napanee area seemed to be a magnet for truck crashes. One entanglement closed the eastbound lanes for more than a day, and the some of the detritus remained by the side of the road for weeks. A storm or two later found more big trucks relegated to the junk yard and parts shelves.

This last little late-winter snow crested last Wednesday dropping a good measure of snow, but it was the plunging temperatures bolstered by some gale-like winds that complicated things. The 401 westbound was closed between Trenton and Belleville, I noticed a trailer split horizontally into a V-shape (I’ve seen a few of these this year, what’s going on, are they making the frames lighter and weaker? There would have to be some good weight onboard to make a deck cave so completely.).

But even with the detour and the mess at the Joyceville Husky (always jammed with rigs and sleeping drivers when the weather turns sour), I made it back to the Etobicoke yard in 9 ½ hours. But it was another matter driving home to my sleepy little hamlet of Acton. I came across 5 jackknifes, and serious ones, between 427 and Hwy 25, and a friend told me he counted 30 on the way to London that morning.

The roads were problematic, glassy ice in all lanes, it was that polished up milky stuff that’s deceiving and so treacherous. But still, why so many crashes among “professional” drivers? I’m not nearly as offended by car pileups, which are expected when the weather gets bad. That’s how you know things are getting slippery, when you start to see cars in the ditch. That recent 96 car pileup in Barrie about a month ago is a good example. An aerial photo shows a couple of trucks, a straight truck and a semi at the front of that reaction but the rest is all four-wheelers, mostly all hell-bent commuters I suspect, hammer down with double-doubles in the cup holders, cruise set at 120 kph, and not-so-smart phones poised on the console.

“Avoid this area of you can, all lanes remain closed, very difficult driving conditions,” intones the CBC announcer, and I think I heard this more than once in the last few months. But last Thursday morning wasn’t the worst. Whiteouts are the worst and thankfully I saw few of them. Pea soup fog is no fun either but white-outs can contain ethereal mystery and danger. It’s like you’re driving inside a tunnel surrounded by in this violent white mist roiling about your machine, your horizon gone, flying by instruments, speedometer, RPMs, feathering the throttle for traction and feeling for the rumble strip, you hope this gust breaks and pray to see just a little bit of something, staring through ice-crusted windshield wipers slapping out the time

Poised too long behind a neurotic driver on and off the brakes, you pass that punter and in seconds there’s nothing around, the headlights fall behind. It’s a lonely feeling on the 401 near the Big Apple,
no one coming either way, and then you’re suddenly overtaken by a couple of trucks, steel haulers in the hammer lane with heavy loads and lots of horsepower. Not in my league, I fall back and drive on in my envelope of snow. Plodding on alone.

And then the going gets worse. The wind had shifted to the south and a full-on lake effect squall blanketed the Newcastle/Pt. Hope area. I was catching some shimmering taillights and then brake lights. Now, one good idea is not to stop in a white out, but to keep moving slow enough so you could sill have some control of any eventuality. So you might start out at 80 kph and as visibility and road conditions worsen you back on down. Any way this rig, turns out it was a UPS A-train wants me to pass, and it’s three lanes there, but I don’t really want to because neither of us can see anything. So I back down and he backs down more so I went in front and there’s a Quebec tractor trailer crimped into the guardrail but nice and straight with room to get around.

But like I said, last week’s crashes were not due to white-outs, rather, ice-outs and it got me to thinking about what’s going on with our truck drivers. OK, we’ve had a couple of mild winters. And it’s clear that many of these drivers have limited winter experience.

So the following is anecdotal and mostly based on my observations, but when you see some of the same logos appearing in crashes from the same companies you wonder why certain companies are having more jackknifes than others. Good drivers are scarce and, may I suggest, that some carriers who have been on hiring blitzes may have hired less-than-experienced drivers. And one certain big company, recently bought up by US interests comes to mind. They’ve been expanding like crazy but so have their accidents, and the drivers don’t have a clue concerning parking protocol in trucks stops and rest areas, which tells me they are recently out of school, or thick, or whatever, drivers like these “don’t get” trucking and one hopes they take up another career or figure it out sooner than later.

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Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.

With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.

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  • The whiteouts and new drivers that are on the road today are part of the reason why I don’t drive anything bigger than my four wheeler in the winter. I can pick and choose when I travel and where. Try doing that when you have a dispatcher that drove in only Toronto for a few years and expects the load to get there yesterday.