batnandu (batnandu) wrote,

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Slippery When Wet

I'm driving lillania's beetle on I-75 near Valdosta (just south of mile marker 11). It's been raining on and off since Lake City, and the road is wet, though it's not raining right now. We're in the far left of three northbound lanes, rounding a gentle curve to the left at about 75 mph, when the tires stop paying attention. The car rotates about 20 degrees counterclockwise, so we're starting to point toward the embankment and guardrail that separates us from the southbound traffic. The last thing I want is to get grip and head for the guardrail. I ease off the gas and steer into the slide (toward the right). The car happily obliges, spinning us more than 180 degrees into the middle lane. As we turn, I'm trying to keep looking out the window pointed in the direction the car is moving (pausing once to look at lillania), which is hard, because which window that is changes from moment to moment, and my head will only rotate so far, so fast. (I also keep trying to predict what will happen next--we're gonna flip, someone's gonna hit us, we'll slide off the side and roll--but my reality refutes every single prediction.) Luckily, the nearest car is about 100 ft to the south. I'd say it was behind us if we weren't looking at it through the (front) windshield. Somewhere around the far right lane (still pointed the wrong way on I-75, and at an unusual angle), the car starts moving in a more normal direction--a straight line backward--toward the outside embankment. I stand on the brakes, while lillania notes that we're going to hit one of the reflector posts. I have no idea how fast we're moving at this point, and I'm reluctant to turn the wheels for fear of sliding off the side instead of rolling, so my only hope is to stop before we hit the reflector post. We don't stop. We hit the post, roll (on the wheels, that is--the car never lost its upright composure) down the embankment and up the other side of the ditch, finally coming to rest nose down in the ditch. The lone car, the only northbound witness, did not stop to help, ask questions, or gawk. I curse Darley and Latané and their infernal diffusion of responsibility.

Lillania wants to take pictures, to which I reluctantly agree (it's starting to rain, it'll be dark soon, and we don't even know if the car is drivable) and snap a couple. Next time I'll hand her the camera--more is better when it comes to photos. I decide to see if I can back the car out, but, of course, the drive wheels are mired. Just as I turn off the engine, a pickup truck pulls up and out hop two smiling gentlemen. I absolve Darley and Latané. They help me push the car out as lillania gently reverses. As we try to assess the damage, a Lowndes County Sherriff pulls up and asks if we're ok, what happened, who was driving, if we need a tow truck, etc. We decide to try to get the car on the road before deciding to call a tow truck. I stall the car a couple of times and hand the key to lillania. She gets the car rolling, but we notice the left rear wheel well liner is rubbing the tire. The cop says, "That car's not drivable." But the pickup truck guys grab a crowbar and pry the liner mostly into place. Lillania does an admirable job of getting the car up the embankment, parking the car a few feet short of mile marker 11, so I'll always know where to look.

Looking the car over, there's dirt and grass wedged in to all kinds of unlilely places, but the visible damage is amazingly minor. A cracked tail light (which we'll find out later still works perfectly), a missing rear running light, some scrapes and dents on the rear, and a slightly damaged fog lamp bracket. There are no indicator lights, nothing dangling under the car, no funny smells, sounds, or any other signs of abnormal behavior. We shake the hands of our benefactors and send them on their way, and we tell the cop we'd like to file an accident report. He calls a state trooper and heads off.

We sit in the car and wait, call our respective parents, and assure each other that we're fine. When the state trooper shows up he asks for our licenses and her insurance, asks what happened and how fast I was driving. As a rule I don't lie, and there's no reason for me to break that rule now. The speed limit is 70, I was driving 75. It was not raining, but the road was wet. The trooper goes back to his car to take the obligatory 20 minutes (which I always thought was intentional, but maybe he's actually doing something meaningful back there), returns with the accident report and a citation for me for driving too fast for the conditions. As much as that sucks, I bet he guessed, correctly, that I was happy enough to be alive that I wouldn't complain about a few dollars.

Lillania takes the wheel from there to assess if anything about the car felt funny. The only thing unsual is a slight vibration at speeds over 50 mph, which could be alignment or just disrupted aerodynamics. She drives the whole way back home with no further incident.

The car, as I said, has very little visible damage, but the shop estimated ~$3800 (over half of which is labor). Of course, they want to replace things that I thought merely involved repairs or some fasteners. And, of course, lillania's collision insurance will cover the repairs. The next day, neither of us has any residual aches or pains, not even a scratch from a seatbelt. So, all things considered, things turned out very well. We were extremely lucky.

Of course, I keep wondering what I could've done differently. I could've driven slower, but would we still have hydroplaned at 70? At 65? How could I know? At no point on our trip were we driving faster than the traffic around us. I also don't know if I could've handled the slide any differently. At that speed, things happen pretty fast, and there's a big difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it. I've always wanted to take a high-speed driving course, and now I have additional motivation. We checked the tires, and they all have plenty of tread, but maybe replacement time should mean an upgrade. It's hard to extract lessons from an experience with so many variables, but I think the primary one here is to control what you can, since there's so much you can't.
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