Near-miss on the interstate: My close encounter with a wrong-way driver

January 19, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 19, 2018

I narrowly avoided serious injury and possibly death in a high-speed car crash while driving west on Interstate 40 around 11:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 18.

As is typical for me on Thursday nights, I was driving back to Durham from Raleigh when the near-miss occurred. Because of Wednesday’s heavy snow, and the inconsistency with which roads are treated following snowfall in North Carolina’s Piedmont, when I first got on the highway, I drove below the posted limit. But the road seemed to be clear of snow and ice, so I gradually pushed up to 65 miles per hour.

The highway has four lanes in each direction for much of Wake County (where the city of Raleigh is located) and Durham County (home, of course, to the city of Durham). At some point as I was approaching or passing Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which is roughly midway between the two cities, I steered into the second lane from the left.

For a great deal of the interstate, one lane is as good as any other when you’re traveling between Raleigh and Durham. On this night, however, my choice of lanes — which I made for no particular reason at all — may have saved my life.

After passing the airport exits, I came to the I-540 interchange. The Wake-Durham county line cuts north-northeast across 40 just after a westbound driver peels away from the main road to take the ramp leading to 540 north.

Not long after that, I had my brush with death.

When I first registered an oncoming car, nothing about it seemed odd. Not until a fraction of a second before it passed me did I realize, with a fright, That car’s driving the wrong way — and it’s coming right at me!

Before the thought had crystallized, the other vehicle had rocketed past me and was gone. It had been traveling in the far-left lane, next to mine; at our closest point, the sides of our vehicles had probably been separated by perhaps a foot, possibly less.

Shaken by this near-miss, I slowed down and pulled over to the right. I suppose I did that just in case someone happened to be following the wrong-way driver. Or maybe it was because I noticed that four or five vehicles ahead of me — all of which I figured to be a quarter-mile or more away from my position — seemed to be moving right and hitting the brakes.

Sometimes when I’m home and I hear a funny noise, I’ll glance at the clock. That way, if the sound turns out to be important, I can let authorities know when something happened. But on Thursday night, I was too rattled to look at the clock.

I told myself that I’d better call in the wrong-way driver, even though I figured it had already been reported to 911. I was still heading west, albeit not as fast as before, and I passed an exit before it occurred to me that I ought to be able to tell the dispatcher where I was when the wrong-way driver had roared by me.

I pulled up the map on my smartphone, which I had in its dashboard air-vent mount. The app showed an overview of the Raleigh-Durham region, because, as usual, I had checked the traffic before starting my trip. I tapped the position icon and the screen zoomed in on my location, showing me that I had just passed the Miami Boulevard exit.

I addressed my smartphone: “Hey Siri, dial 911.” It failed to respond, so I repeated the command. This time, Siri reacted by saying “Calling emergency services…” and showing the text “Calling emergency services in…” above a window that was counting down from three. Beneath the countdown were two options, “cancel” and “call.” I jabbed at the latter button.

When the dispatcher answered, I said something like, “Hey, do you guys know about the wrong-way driver on I-40?” I then explained that I was driving west on I-40 near the Miami Boulevard exit when an eastbound driver had passed me in the westbound lanes.

The dispatcher and I had some trouble understanding each other; later, I realized that I probably hadn’t had my phone’s Bluetooth enabled, so my voice wasn’t being picked up by the microphone in my car and hers wasn’t being channeled through its speakers. At any rate, at the dispatcher’s request, I announced where I’d been passed by the wrong-way driver three different times. After that, she thanked me, and we ended the call.

According to my phone, I dialed 911 at 11:32 p.m., and the call lasted one minute. By the time it had ended, I was exiting I-40 and merging onto Durham Freeway and headed north to the Bull City.

The speed limit on much of the freeway’s southern stretch is 65. I didn’t go that fast. Belated surges of adrenaline were pumping through my body, and I felt shaky. As I got closer to my normal exit in Durham, I realized that my legs were trembling.

When I pulled off the freeway, I made a previously planned stop at a nearby automatic teller machine. I deposited a check at 11:46 p.m. and made a small withdrawal at 11:47. Then I drove home.

When I got there, I glanced at my phone. A local television news station had sent me an email message with a subject line reading “BREAKING NEWS.” The main text was short and to the point — and utterly chilling. It said, “A serious wreck has closed all westbound lanes of Interstate-40 near Wade Avenue, Raleigh police said.”

Wade Avenue was where I’d gotten onto the highway. I figured that the same idiot who had passed me had continued heading east on westbound 40 until colliding with some vehicle and its terrified occupant.

Westbound lanes on Interstate 40 in western Raleigh, N.C., were closed in the early hours of Friday, Jan. 19, after a fatal collision involving a wrong-way driver.

Westbound lanes on Interstate 40 in western Raleigh, N.C., were closed in the early hours of Friday, Jan. 19, after a fatal collision involving a wrong-way driver.

As noted above, I was probably going 65 mph when I encountered the wrong-way driver. I’d estimate that the other vehicle was going the same rate, if not faster. A head-on collision between two objects moving at that velocity works out to a speed of 130 mph at impact. I drive a late-model car in good working order, and I always wear my seatbelt. Still, I suspect that the chances of surviving a crash aren’t great — and I’d guess that it might take a miracle to walk away from that kind of wreck uninjured.

I was fortunate, and for that I am thankful. I feel awful for the person or people who weren’t lucky enough to avoid the path of that misguided driver.

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