How I nearly became the ‘next fatality’

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Geoffrey Gibbs
  • 42nd Air Base Wing chief of safety
Risk management does not entail the absence of risk, but may be the closest thing we have to 20/20 "foresight."

Whether in our daily operations or personal life, risk management calls for you to review the task, conditions, resources and equipment; assess all the risks involved; determine if there are ways to mitigate those risks; and, ultimately, decide whether the activity is worth doing or too risky. You gather as much information as you can to help make the decision while continuously updating your sight picture to adjust your decision if the situation changes.

Sometimes you have incomplete information and a limited amount of time to decide. In these situations, we may resort to assumptions. I'll be the first to say that one should "never assume," but, realistically, there are plenty of situations where we inadvertently do and we don't even realize it. This brings me to the picture you see and the title of this article.

Recently, my aunt and uncle had a 50th anniversary celebration I planned to attend about 3½ hours from Maxwell. As that day approached, I tracked the weather, saw I had some pretty adverse weather for a portion of the drive and decided to leave earlier, allowing for more time on the road. I woke up well rested, checked my car one last time and hit the road. I encountered heavy rain as expected, but I was focused and aware of the traffic around me. About halfway through the drive, the rain subsided and traffic was, thankfully, still light.

At one point, I was overtaking an 18-wheeler similar to the "re-enacted" picture accompanying this article. The truck was in the right lane approaching a slight turn to the left on the interstate and not accelerating or driving erratically in any way. I noticed a "merge zone" directing traffic into the right lane. There had not been any previous signs warning of a construction zone, nor did it look like the construction zone was imminent.

That's when problems started. I assumed the construction zone was not imminent. I assumed the merge lane would provide ample passing space. I had also assumed the truck driver saw me. What I saw was a merge lane with what appeared to have enough distance to pass the truck before merging. With my decision to pass the truck through the merge zone, I unknowingly made another critical assumption about my ability to handle the situation I saw before me. But the situation was not static; it was dynamic. Things change.

What I couldn't see was the construction zone right around the bend and a merge zone of merely a couple of hundred feet. Entering the merge zone, I didn't have enough stopping distance to slow down behind the truck because the road was still wet. I took that new information and realized I needed to accelerate to get in front of the truck. Besides, I assumed the truck driver saw me.

It became clear the driver didn't see my vehicle as soon as I saw his front left tire cutting an efficient line into the turn and toward me. What began as an innocuous decision to pass based on what appeared to be a fairly benign situation suddenly turned into a critical, last-ditch effort to avoid a horrible end. At the time, I only saw three options:

1) Get crushed by the truck, which was not very appealing;

2) Hit the orange barrels, which might bounce me into the truck with the aforementioned crushing; or

3) Max-perform my vehicle and focus three decades of driving ability in the hopes I could thread the needle and laugh about it later with a glorious "there I was" story.

Clearly, I chose option 3, floored it and continued adjusting left as the truck kept inching closer into me going into the turn, the whole while praying I could get through unscathed.

This is where the "there I was" stories normally end in some extraordinarily humorous, stunningly unbelievable or fantastically amazing result. This is not the case here. Obviously, I'm alive and able to share my experience with you. My trustworthy chariot is sadly a little worse for the wear. The vehicle is still drivable, and the damage is for the most part superficial. I managed to avoid the truck but nicked the very last barrel, resulting in a five-foot scrape along the left side of my car and a mangled rear-view mirror, both issues fixable.

So what are the "take-aways?" Risk management does work. Where it doesn't is when improper assumptions lead us into complacency and cause us to miss information that should make us take notice. Risk management requires constant vigilance for changes in conditions. It requires an awareness of our resources, equipment and our own abilities and limitations. Plan for the unforeseen; expect the unexpected.

Helmuth von Moltke once commented, "No plan survives first contact." In other words, we will have to make adjustments as we go along. As to risk management in dynamic situations, I leave you with this quote from Gen. George Patton: "A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week."

That's not to say that I recommend anyone should haphazardly "execute plans violently," but, if and when the time comes to encounter an imminent life-threatening hazard, be prepared for it, focus your training, and execute in such a way as to minimize the risk and hazardous outcome. We may not walk away completely unscathed, but being able to walk away is better than the alternative.