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Driving Through a Dust Storm

Updated on June 10, 2011

Dust Can Be Dangerous

For most people dust is something to clean up with a vacum cleaner or dust rag.

However, in dry desert areas with limited vegetation to hold the sandy soil in place, sand and dust are easily picked up and blown about by the wind.

Heavy, sustained winds can darken an area with dust and this makes driving in such storms extremely dangerous.

Despite living in Arizona for almost 25 years, I have been fortunate in not having been caught in a dust storm on the road in open country. I did encounter a small dust storm while driving home from work years ago. However, in the city, the storms are not as bad as the buildings not only limit the ground area for the wind to collect dust but also serve to block some of the flying dust.

A Standard Highway Warning Sign
A Standard Highway Warning Sign
Our First sign of trouble
Our First sign of trouble

Nevertheless, that storm made driving difficult enough to cause most of us to pull over for a few minutes an wait out the storm. Fortunately, there was enough visibility that we did not have to worry about being hit by those attempting to drive through the storm.

While I was fortunate enough to not have encountered a dust storm on the highway for almost a quarter of a century, I finally had the experience recently.

It was a somewhat windy day in the autumn and my wife wanted to go shopping at the giant Promenade Shopping Plaza in Casa Grande just south of Phoenix. I had a fleeting thought that we might encounter a dust storm as we saw some blowing dust in the distance on either side of the road when we got on the Interstate and began heading north to Casa Grande.

However, dust devils, little tornado-like swirling dust, and patches of dust blowing across dry, dusty fields are neither uncommon nor dangerous. Usually they are not only small but the patches of blowing dust are also usually thin enough to see through. Generally, both of these are caused by short bursts of wind and the dust quickly falls to the ground when the wind guest dies.

First Car Accident
First Car Accident
Entering dust storm
Entering dust storm
Becoming more difficult to see
Becoming more difficult to see
In the thick of it
In the thick of it
Air is full of dust
Air is full of dust
Coming out of the storm
Coming out of the storm
In the shopping plaza and all is clear
In the shopping plaza and all is clear | Source
This costume for Chika is all we have to show for the trip
This costume for Chika is all we have to show for the trip

The trip went well until just past Picacho Peak. Suddenly, we saw a state highway patrol car parked on the left shoulder of our side of the highway facing traffic with its lights flashing and siren sounding. Patrol cars parked on the side of the road are a common sight since my fellow citizens an I routinely vote out of office politicians who raise taxes The politicians and bureaucrats have retaliated by converting our police into revenue agents whose main job is to transfer money from the pockets of motorists and into the clutches of the politicians.

However, this officer was pointed in the wrong direction for a speed trap so the other drivers and I slowed down figuring there must be an accident ahead.

A little further on traffic slowed to nearly a halt but still no sign of a problem other than signs indicating that that northbound traffic was narrowing from three to two lanes. The traffic soon merged into two lanes but kept the same slow speed. Concrete barriers were in place separating the right lane, that was obviously under construction, from the two lanes to its left.
Generally when traffic is forced to merge like this, speed picks up after the merge point, but this day it remained at crawl speed.

We continued on and, after about twenty minutes, encountered two cars which had obviously collided earlier, completely off to the side of the road on the wide median strip. The damage didn't appear serious and the three people who had apparently been in the cars were simply standing around chatting with each other. Again, once past something like this and after all the curious drivers ahead have had a chance to crawl past and view the accident, traffic picks up speed. However, once again, nothing - still the same slow pace.

Finally, after traveling almost 45 minutes at an incredibly slow speed, I noticed a truck off to the side of the road, sitting in the median strip with a police car parked on the far side of it. My first thought was that this was the big accident that was slowing everything down.

However, the truck appeared to be undamaged and, as we inched forward I suddenly noticed two or three more trucks pulled well off the road while the sky ahead was suddenly becoming a very dark tan color.

We were headed straight into the dust storm that was the real cause of the hold up.
Traffic in the southbound lanes across the median was also slowed to a halt as you could see cars and trucks, lights on, emerging slowly from the thick dust and then beginning to pick up speed.

We were soon in the storm and visibility was about fifteen to twenty feet ahead. The normal advice when caught in a dust storm, and they come up fast, is to pull off the road as far as you can and turn off your lights.

Tail lights can be seen a little farther away than can a car without lights. Following the tail lights of the car ahead is one way to get through such a storm. However, when there is little or no traffic on the road, it is very easy to spot the lit tail lights of a car parked on the side and assume that that car is on the road. The driver of a car then thinks that he must be off the road and swerves to get behind the car with the lights on only to discover, too late, when he collides with it, that it is parked off the road.

In this case I was in the right lane with a concrete construction barrier on my right and a solid line of slow moving traffic on my left so there was no way I could get off the road. But, the heavy traffic was moving, slowly and cautiously, an all of us had our lights on and were following each other.

Unlike a lone car traveling at normal speed which suddenly hits a wall, and wall is the perfect word as this is very much like pockets of fog at night, of blowing dust and then collides with a car in the dust storm before being able to slow down, I had some advantages. The first being that I had a line of cars, at least 20 miles long, moving slowly behind me - not much chance of someone colliding with my rear end at a fast speed.

Ahead, I had limited visibility but could easily see the tail lights of the cars ahead of me as well as the headlights of those behind.
The storm was only a couple of miles wide and we were soon out of it and on our way.
I was a little concerned with the drive back as I would have had darkness and dust to contend with.

However, the winds died down following sunset thereby ending the blowing dust. Light traffic and no dust storms made for an easy drive home.

We were both happy to have made the trip unscathed. However, as my wife was unable to find the evening gown she had been looking for, all we had to show for the harrowing trip was a $5 Santa Claus costume for our dog Chika that was on sale.


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