How to avoid a Pileup: Leave the Pack

As winter weather approaches, so does the threat of another multi-vehicle pileup accident. 

These accidents captivate news audiences, make headlines, shut down highways, and worst of all, claim lives. It’s hard to hear about or witness a single vehicle crash amidst slippery winter roads, but the situation is devastatingly heightened when the initial crash expands to dozens of vehicles slamming into one another.

Yet, pileups are not uncommon.

In 2021, an unprepared Fort Worth witnessed a 133-vehicle pileup that killed six people. The city—usually safe from extreme winter storms—experienced freezing rain, and drivers did not adjust accordingly. 

Dozens of semis pileup on I-94 crash in Northfield, Wisconsin in December 2021 (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Rapids Tribune).

Ten months later, in December 2021, the other side of the country (usually more prepared for the winter) saw similar results. Dozens of semi-trucks in Wisconsin smashed into one another as a result of freezing rain just before daylight.

Then in February 2022, a 100-vehicle chain piled on I-39 Central Illinois and closed the route for multiple days. 

The headlines all point to one question – if you are careful to not cause an accident, how can you ensure you stay out of a pileup?

Here are four safe driving tips for avoiding a pileup accident.

1. Increase your following distance

A “pack” is a group of vehicles traveling together. The tight-knit formation is not necessarily drivers all heading to the same location, but following one another closely front to back, and riding alongside other vehicles side to side. 

Driving in a pack reduces the following distance between vehicles and therefore restricts stopping distance.

At best, tailgating another driver can result in a fender bender accident; at worst, a pileup. When roads are slick, you will want all the stopping distance you can have. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “The average stopping distance for a loaded tractor-trailer traveling at 55 mph (in ideal conditions) is 196 feet, compared with 133 feet for a passenger vehicle.”

In unideal conditions, of course, more space than 196 feet will be needed to stop.

Bottom line – increase your following distance and let the pack move on forward without you.

2. Create space between you and problematic drivers

Perhaps your top concern when winter comes isn’t your following distance but the behavior of other drivers on the road. Despite near nationwide bans on texting and driving, even in acclimate weather, this distraction can permeate highways.

If a driver behind you or near you looks like they are swerving, sliding, or struggling to stay attentive, consider pulling off the roadway for a moment or significantly slowing down for a short period. Creating space between you and a driver who looks problematic will help you to avoid an accident with the driver. 

Deadly I-35 crash in Fort Worth, Texas in February 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dallas Morning News).

3. Heighten your attention 

Eliminating distractions is essential for all drivers at all times. However, situations like winter weather or getting caught in a pack of trucks require your utmost attention. 

It may be tempting, when approaching slowing traffic, to check for alternative routes on your GPS or make a few calls to update dispatch on an ETA. Taking your eyes off the road for mere seconds is the difference between life and death on the road, especially in the wintertime. 

If you are caught it a pack, work to stay alert and stay aware of where other drivers are.

4. Know the conditions and drive to them

Experienced and inexperienced drivers alike know that driving on a dry road is far different from driving on one wet from rain, snow, or ice.

Winter weather conditions demand a different kind of driving. That includes slowing down, allowing more time for slower travel while trip planning, and not getting in a rush. Conditions could even change throughout a trip – which is why Continental Express’ custom app, CE-GO, provides live weather updates on our drivers’ iPad system. 

Still, some conditions like ice are unpredictable or even hidden from the eye. Black ice is practically invisible, so drivers need to be alert for dangerous road conditions anytime the weather could produce them.

100 vehicle pileup shuts down 30 miles of I-39 in El Paso, Illinois in February 2022 (Photo courtesy of CDL Life).

Ultimately, it’s about getting everyone home safely

Take your time and drive slowly. If needed, take a break, park the truck, and wait it out.  

Your safety and the safety of all those on the road is Continental Express’ top priority. No load or time frame is worth risking that.