Thu | Feb 22, 2018

Garth Rattray | Dangers of the North-South Highway

Published:Monday | August 15, 2016 | 12:00 AM
A landslide along a section of the North-South link of Highway 2000.

It was a balmy Friday afternoon. Going north on the North-South Highway started off uneventful and calm. The cloudy skies frowned down upon the roadway as their silver linings shone eerily upon the nearby hillsides. Soon, our vehicle drove into very light showers. In a few minutes, the intermittent wipers became ineffective and we transitioned from single to double speed in order to sweep the water off the windscreen.

By this time, the entire atmosphere was grey and a distant light fog crept towards us stealthily. We were approaching Unity Valley. There was a noticeable sheen off the thin sheet of water accompanying us as we descended the hill. We slowed down and pulled over into the left lane as the raindrops fell hurriedly all around us.

As soon as we completed our lane change, a mid-size SUV cruised by us in the right lane. There wasn't enough water on the road to produce any splashing; only a steady whoosh could be heard as the light spray mingled with the approaching mist.

The routineness of the drive suddenly took a vertiginous turn when the SUV began rotating anti-clockwise; it was as if the wheels were moving across a surface of glassy ice. To our absolute amazement and horror, the SUV rotated through 180 degrees as it effortlessly slid backways downhill a few metres in front of us. It continued rotating and sliding silently to the left until it impacted the kerb, flipped into the verdant gully, and rolled repeatedly, flinging off various parts of itself and splashing water into the air, along with vegetation and soil. It was truly a sight to behold.

It laid to rest all muddy and mangled as another driver stopped and went into the gully to see if anyone needed assistance. As I paused on the embankment, to my amazement, a young lady emerged through the rear, the only possible exit. She was emotionally distraught but physically unscathed. Thank God she had been wearing her seat belt. Were it not for that and the sturdiness of that SUV, the story could have ended very differently.

She was not the only hapless highway victim of the dreaded hydroplaning (also called aquaplaning). This occurs when a layer of water builds up between the tyres and the road, literally lifting the entire vehicle and floating it helplessly. At this point, there is no traction and, therefore, no control.

 

BEST PREVENTATIVE MEASURES

 

The best preventative measures are to reduce speed, use a lower gear, disengage the cruise control, avoid puddles if you can, drive in the tyre tracks of others, avoid sudden turns or sudden braking, have good tyres, and keep tyres properly inflated. There is an urgent need for signs warning drivers to slow down significantly (to between 50kph and 60kph) if it's raining.

Currently, another lurking danger is where the lane changes across to the other side of the highway on the steep descent proximate to the rockslide. There needs to be bright reflector paint or bright red flashing lights on that concrete divider.

Additionally, that 80kph speed limit may be appropriate for corners, brows and steep declines, but many stretches of the highway should be limited at 110kph and the 80kph zones appropriately labelled, where necessary. I am passionate about that for several reasons. Sticking to 80kph all the way is extremely boring and induces somnolence. It's punishingly slow.

Perhaps even more important, it encourages many drivers to ignore the posted speed limit. This sets up a habit of disobedience and of speeding without any limits. I usually hover just under 90kph and vehicles of all sizes pass me at such a high rate of speed that they produce a strong and forceful wind.

And, the various existing road signs are too small and do not command attention from drivers until they are close by. This problem begs for panic-driven lane changes or sudden stopping, which can prove deadly on a highway.

Historically, the relevant authorities pay little or no attention to opinions from anyone except their appointed 'experts', but I hope that someone will take these things into mind and save lives.

• Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com.