High winds blew over a semitrailer Friday on Interstate 84 east of Pendleton and shut down almost 50 miles of the freeway for several hours. Area commercial driver examiners said when the wind gets that bad, drivers need to park it.
The wreck occurred on the eastbound side of I-84 near milepost 221 on Cabbage Hill, or Emigrant Hill, one of the more treacherous passages in the Pacific Northwest. Starting at the top near milepost 227 and ending at about the 217, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation, the passage drops about 2,000 feet in a 6-mile span through a double switch-back. The weather on the hill can change from rain at the boom to sleet and slick surfaces in a little more than a mile during the winter.
Tye Borger, of Hermiston, said the reports of 90-mph gusts on Cabbage Hill in the Blue Mountains were the first she could recall in years, but she had one over-arching piece of advice for any drivers in such conditions:
Borger is a third-party commercial driver tester. She said Cabbage Hill is notorious for its steep grade and difficult going in winter weather and too often crashes result from drivers going too fast or not driving for the conditions.
“People definitely need to respect that mountain,” she said.
Bud Stephens, of the Tri-Cities, echoed that sentiment. He provides third-party testing to truck drivers in Oregon and Washington. Crosswinds more than 40 mph can topple a 53-foot-long trailer, and if that trailer it empty, it’s “just a big sail boat going down the road.” In that kind of wind, he said, he tells drivers to stop and wait it out.
Like Borger, he also said, slowing down is the key for drivers to keep control and stay safer when coming down Cabbage Hill.
Stephens said drivers should use engine braking rather than mashing down on the brake peddle. That means shifting into a lower and thus slower gear as you start down the mountain.
“You don’t shift going down the hill,” he said. “Stay in one gear.”
Then as the vehicle accelerates, ease down on the brake peddle to slow 5 mph at a time. Don’t keep your foot on the brake for a long time, he said, and don’t press it to the floor. In semis, this keeps the brakes from heating up to the point they stop working.
“Those are the two things a driver must do on a long, steep downgrade,” he said.
The method also applies to cars, pickups and minivans with automatic transmissions as much as the big rigs.
Borger added she understands the pressure truckers are under to make their unloading and loading appointments, but the No. 1 priority on the road should be safety.
“Vehicles can be replaced,” she said. “Your life can’t.“