Sometimes mother nature’s moods can be as destructive as they are diverse.
By Paul Goodhind.ILLUSTRATION STEVE SHAW.
Many years ago, and in another life, Her Majesty treated me to loads of lessons on the art of driving – not only on the roads, but on freezing snow, hot sand, with very heavy loads, and also with blue lights pursuit. So, once I was back in civvy street, I counted myself reasonably able to negotiate the UK network of roads as a truck driver.
I was therefore supremely confident in my ability to tackle the snow-covered hill in front of me one night when the scenery was quickly turning white. Low gear, keep the momentum, gentle on the loud pedal and up we go, calm as a monk. No problem until almost at the top, then the scenery started slowing and I sort of went into reverse. “Impossible”, I thought, “I’m still in gear, low revs, foot tickling the throttle.” It then dawned on me that the whole 50-foot truck was sliding backwards, and gathering speed. Total panic then ensued, and my foot jammed hard onto the brake. In the mirror, I saw the trailer hit the nearside kerb, following it around into a side street and colliding with a grit bin. This whip-lashed the cab and the trailer through 180 degrees on the slippery surface, leaving me facing downhill and diagonal across the whole road. Then all progress ceased.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I eased off the brake pedal and relaxed. But that was my mistake. Progress started once again, this time with me in the front of 32 tonnes of out of control wagon and load, and now much nearer to the eventual crash site. All reason fled from me and I jammed my foot on the brake once more, effectively turning the truck into a giant toboggan. The speed seemed to be breakneck to my terrified mind, but because of the falling snow, probably was not more than 30 mph or so. Through the blizzard I saw blue flashing lights and prayed it was an ambulance waiting to take my poor shattered body to the nearest A+E. Amazingly, I was actually slowing and came to rest a foot behind a police Range Rover.
This time I had the sense to put the handbrake on before removing my shaking foot from the stop pedal. I climbed out of the truck and promptly fell over on my arse. I was not having a great day. Through the blizzard emerged two huge policemen in hi-viz coats and wrapped up warmly against the cold. They helped me up and one said, “By ‘eck lad, that was some great driving. Have you took lessons?”
Nowadays, with everything else we have to suffer in the way of roadworks, traffic jams and constant changes in legislation, we drivers have to deal with the violent change in the weather which is upon us – be it rain storms, snow, smog or hurricane winds. Living near the Peak district and on the right side of the hill, ie South Yorkshire, I often find my route for the day is one or other of the main routes over the top. On a cloud free night or calm day, nothing is better than driving the Woodhead pass, but once the weather turns, beware. I have lost count of the number of overturned wagons on the telephone corner climb to Barnsley, after Salter’s bridge, where the winds can whip you from one side of the narrow road to the other.
There were once three trucks, all from the same company, neatly lined up on the side of the road and on their sides. Apparently, the first one went over and the other two stopped to help, then got promptly blown over as well (no, don’t laugh). No-one was hurt, but I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that office when the conversation turned to “Well, it was like this boss….”
This year, I was following a curtainsider around the dam area on the M62 and his trailer wheels were lifting as the gale blew across the road. I had a heavy container on and was able to drive alongside the truck and shield him from the worst of the weather, until we could pull off and fold his curtains under the rear doors. Even with my weight, our trailers touched once or twice over the most exposed part of the motorway, and both trucks were hard to control. I have seen deep snow drifts either side of the road only kept clear by the dedicated gritter ploughs stationed in the laybys overnight. But my worst nightmare is fog, be it thick or freezing.
I have, in my long career, been mesmerised by the fog and once actually drove through red lights on the East Lancs. It was at two o’clock in the morning, but it still haunts me that I could be so easily hypnotised into potentially killing someone. From then on, I drove in fog with the window open – this keeps you in contact with the real world outside, and works for me. Even so, corners and obstacles come up fast when you least expect them and have to be guarded against by being extra vigilant.
I count the worst scare as reaching an almost 11 in fog on a scale of 1 to 10, where ten is undercracker staining time. It was on the M1 southbound, the climb from Tinsley viaduct to the M18. A thick peasouper, other trucks and I were progressing at a reasonable but safe lick up the hill. Suddenly, there was a pair of headlights directly in front of us and on full beam. Brakes were slammed on in the convoy and the lights disappeared into the thick fog. We accelerated cautiously and the lights appeared again. Turns out a wrecker driver with good intentions, but little in the way of brains, was towing a unit backwards with all the lights on – phew! I’m glad to be retiring in April of this year – chances are the experts have got it right and the weather is going to get worse very soon.