Notes From the Road - Hydroplaning in Alabama

I’m driving on I-65 and it starts to rain. Not hard, but a steady rain. Suddenly the back of my van starts to sway. The van begins to rotate. The view from the windshield changes from open road to the trees in the median and then to the headlights of the cars behind me. I realize that we are in trouble. *record scratch* *freeze frame* "you're probably wondering how i got in this situation"

I recently participated in the great American tradition of the road trip. Driving 1,114 miles from Houston, TX to Charleston, SC. After 2020, it feels great to get back out in the world. Seeing places and old friends. I have made this drive many times. I don’t need directions. I navigate by city, Houston to Baton Rouge, Mobile, Montgomery, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbia, Charleston.

I have always hated the stretch of I-65 between Mobile and Montgomery. As you head East, typically, the space between cities and towns decreases. This lonely section of about 160 miles bucks that trend. Very few exits, gas stations, or places to eat. Or get help if you break down. When my kids were very young, we would leave Houston at 8:00PM and drive through the night so they would sleep for most of the trip. About 2:00AM I would start this stretch. I always had visions of breaking down and not being able to get the car to a shop. The family stranded, having to live on the side of the road. Fashioning a makeshift house from luggage and other found debris. Stranded on a deserted island. This is our home now kids. But I’m prone to irrational fears. Thankfully this never materialized.

On one trip I took one of the very few exits to get a cup of coffee. Walking up to the gas station, I could see nine or ten people inside talking and laughing loudly. This is 3:00AM. I opened the door, and everyone went quiet, looking at me. I made a cup of coffee, the silence and stares continued. Walking up to pay, silence. The cashier only nodded at the total on the register, I paid and left with every eye on me. As soon as I got out of the store the talking and laughing resumed. A truly strange experience on a truly strange stretch of road.

The trip concerning this narrative, we left Houston at a respectable 8:30AM. We hit quite a bit of traffic and made some stops, so it was late evening when I got to this section of I-65. We were beginning to think about where to stop for dinner. This section of the Alabama countryside is a series of gentle swells. We had had rain off and on for the last hour. I reduced my speed to about five miles under the speed limit and was on cruise control. The rain started to pick up. Being from Houston, I am used to driving in the rain. This was nothing serious, just a nice steady rain. As I reached the bottom of one of the swells, I felt the car begin to hydroplane.

In retrospect, my critical error was using cruise control. In a hydroplaning event the traditional advice is to take your foot off the accelerator and do not touch the brake. This will allow the car to settle and straighten out. With the cruise set, the van continued to maintain speed and increased my instability. Had I read this article from Drivers Tests dot org I would not have had cruise control on in the rain.

What started as a slight fishtail quickly escalated into a full 360° spin. All I remember are flashes. The van 90° to the road, the van pointed backwards, me staring at the headlights of the cars behind me, grass and mud flying into the air as I left the road onto the right shoulder, and the van coming to a stop at the bottom of a ditch. The entire event was entirely silent except for my wife screaming “Jesus, protect us!” Once we came to a stop and looked around everyone was wide eyed, scared, and completely unharmed. True protection. We came to a stop at the bottom of a shallow ditch, grass on both sides but the bottom was concrete for drainage. The concrete ran all the way to the exit ramp which was only about 100 yards ahead. I looked down and the engine was still running. I was able to drive out of the ditch and exit. We did notice that three other cars had also lost control and were on the left shoulder.

We pulled into a gas station and inspected the van. It seemed totally fine except for some scratches and a rattle on the sliding door. We were able to continue the trip without delays. The van is in the shop now having the minor damage repaired.

Unfortunately, not everyone traveling I-65 gets away unharmed. We learned that a week earlier a van carrying several children hydroplaned, struck a bridge or wall and caught fire, only the driver was pulled from the car alive. 14 other cars were involved in the accident. This happened just a few miles from where we hydroplaned. One article we read said that I-65 is notorious for hydroplaning. On the way back home, I was looking carefully at the road. There is no crowning and no grooves to move water off the road. With the gentle rolling all the water begins to flow down the road creating hazardous driving conditions.

It wasn’t unexpected that when I took a screen shot to show the road, there was a reported accident very close to where we had ours.

Bringing this back to engineering, this was a personal reminder that every time I engineer something people's lives are on the line. The public trusts engineers to do our jobs correctly so they can live their lives safely. Keep this in mind as you design, think of the families your work is going to affect.

I have reported the incident to the Alabama Department of Transportation.

Bonus: Here is a picture of moonshine pickles. Yes they are acholic about 80 proof. You can buy these at a sketchy gas station in Louisiana.