Respect the road

  • Published
  • By Capt. Tobias Switzer
  • 1st SOG
In the early morning hours of Nov. 26, 2007, a pickup truck traveling westbound on Interstate 10 in the Florida Panhandle hydroplaned off the road. It spun 180 degrees and traveled backward down a steep embankment into a tree line. The vehicle came to a violent stop after hitting a tree on the passenger side. Insurance estimates considered the accident a total loss. Police and rescue workers who arrived on the scene within 10 minutes did not think it was possible for anyone to survive a crash like this.

For all intents and purposes, this article was written by a ghost. I have no business being alive except for divine intervention and the charge to spread the word about what happened to me and how to prevent it from happening to others. A simple but fundamental driving mistake almost rendered my wife a widow and our unborn child fatherless.

I am an MH-53M pilot at Hurlburt Field with more than 450 hours of combat time in Iraq and more than 1,300 accident-free hours of flying. If you ask anyone who knows me, I am a risk-averse person by nature. I am probably the least interesting person to fly with because my only concern in training or combat is to execute the mission and bring everyone home safely. While driving, I don't speed, I always check my blind spot when changing lanes, and I have never received a ticket. However, being cautious is not helpful when ignorance and poor decision making come into the picture.

That morning I awoke at 4:45 a.m. and departed my wife's apartment in Tallahassee for Hurlburt, a three-hour drive. I slept eight hours and was well rested when I began my trip. The first two hours were standard fare. I-10 is a flat, straight freeway with very little variation in scenery, an easy drive.

As I approached DeFuniak Springs, a gentle rain began. I had bags in the bed of the truck, but I knew they could take a little bit of rain. I pressed on to see if the rain would subside or get heavier. About 20 minutes later, the intensity of the rain picked up. I pulled over at the next stop to get my luggage out of the bed and into the passenger side of the truck.

Here is where the chain of events that led to my accident began. I got back onto I-10 and continued driving at the speed limit of 70 mph using cruise control. At this point the rain was steady, but the visibility was still pretty good. I started to feel the truck's gears slipping, so I turned off the cruise control remembering that it is not a good idea to use that function when roads are slippery or traction is low. Fortunately, I remembered this fact and disengaged cruise control before I lost control of the vehicle.

Unfortunately, I didn't slow down. A couple of miles later, the truck's control became fairly sloppy. Just as I started thinking about reducing my speed, the truck hydroplaned to the left, and I was no longer in control. I had a few seconds before impact to think to myself, "This is it, I'm done." For all the hairy situations both in combat and in training I've survived, it was odd that a self-induced car wreck would do me in.

The pictures show what words could not adequately describe. I am lucky to be alive, and there are a couple of take-aways I have to share.

First, never use your cruise control in conditions where traction is an issue. If you begin to lose control of the vehicle, the last thing you want is for it to attempt to continue at the set speed.

Second, slow down in slippery conditions. I allowed myself to become lulled into complacency because the visibility was so good despite the rain. Maintaining a speed of 70 mph was clearly not a good idea. Slowing down to 40-50 mph would have been a lot safer. There are good procedures for recovering a skidding or hydroplaning vehicle, but when you're traveling 70 mph, there is no time to react and implement them.

I did not respect the conditions of the road and the limitations of the vehicle.

So there it is. I have done the research and have empirical evidence to show that whenever driving conditions are not ideal, you really need to slow down. It sounds simple because it is simple. Don't allow yourself to make the same mistake I made. Your family and fellow Airmen are counting on you to come back alive.