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Point of View: Winter weather makes for scary driving

This winter seems warmer than expected. A couple of weeks ago, I received my Con Edison bill for December, which was much lower than the same period of last year. The average temperature in that month was 41 degrees compared with 29 a year ago, according to the utility. And a week ago, the mercury hit 69, well above normal.

Hopefully, Mother Nature will spare us from bone-chilling weather throughout the rest of the season. However, we need a lot of rain to ease the drought and some snow to placate the skiers. But I have little desire for the white stuff because I had several brushes with death in snow-related accidents.

Last month, fellow columnist Alex Berger spun a yarn about blizzards affecting him and his family years ago. That reminds me of several snowstorms that almost killed my family and me.

On Dec. 18, 19972, my pregnant wife, 6-year-old son and I were leaving Pampa, Texas, in a 1965 Impala for Hammond, Ind., where I was to start a better-paying job. But snow blanketed the five states — Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and the Panhandle of Texas — that I had to drive through. Before we set out, the publisher of the Pampa Daily, my colleagues and friends urged me to put off our departure because the storm was getting worse in those states. I stubbornly ignored their advice.

When we hit the road, we were delighted that ours was the only car on the highway, so we did not have to worry about being tailgated on the icy road. That wishful thinking was terribly wrong.

I drove with the two right-side wheels on the grassy shoulder of the highway to avoid skidding on the slippery road. Our septuagenarian landlady gave me that tip. A couple of hours later, however, I suddenly lost control of my car, zigzagging on a slope like a shallow ditch, and a fear immediately chilled my spine. I got out of my car, hoping someone could come to our rescue. Shivering in the open for half an hour, I did not see a soul. I had no choice but get back in the car. By the grace of God, I managed to drive it back onto the road.

While going downhill somewhere in Missouri early the next morning, my car almost had a head-on collision with a huge snowplow, missing each other by a few inches. The freezing rain was to blame for the close call. It froze the windshield wipers and blurred my vision.

On Jan. 14, 1994, on my way home in Mahopac, Putnam County, from White Plains in Westchester County, I almost got killed when my car, traveling on the treacherous Taconic Parkway about 1:30 a.m., hit a big icy puddle, flew through the air and dived into a pile of snow at a 30-degree angle about 40 feet from the road, miraculously missing a big tree by about 2 inches. The driver-side door was thrown open by the crash. Shaken but unscathed, I crawled, then trudged in the knee-deep snow to the edge of a 2-foot-high snow bank, quivering and hoping some motorists could give me a ride home.

Thank God, a van came to a halt in front of me, and its driver asked me if I needed any help. I said yes, but the likely Good Samaritan changed his mind. About 40 minutes later, another vehicle came and stopped, and its female driver in her 30s asked me the same question as the first one did. This time I was accepted.

To me, she was an angel. Without her, I would have frozen to death. The temperature plus the wind-chill factor was then about 50 degrees below zero. She took me to every gas station in Mahopac to see if there was any car-towing service. Unfortunately, the harsh weather shut down all the all-night gas stations with AAA service.

Finally, she drove me home. I asked her if I could get her name and address, so someday I might thank her with something because her compassion literally saved my life. This bighearted woman rejected my request graciously, saying that she was a cop working in Manhattan; she was on her way home in Mahopac when she saw me. To help people was her duty, she said.

In retrospect, I should also blame myself for the accident. I probably drove a little bit faster than I should have. I thought my 1993 Camry with ABS could handle any road conditions. I was wrong. When my car was sliding uncontrollably on that icy stretch of the road, I pumped the brakes as I did in previous cars without ABS under similar road conditions. I was later told that I should slam the brake pedal in vehicles with such a system.

In 1993 and 1996, I twice went astray in the vastness of snow-covered land between White Plains and Mahopac in the wee hours of the morning. Because of zero visibility, I lost my sense of direction and was unable to find the roads. Each time took me hours to get home instead of the usual 45 minutes.

Driving in the snow sometimes poses a serious risk to life. Be careful, folks!

Reach columnist George Tsai by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 140.

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