The Massive Michigan Pile-Ups Explained

As most of you are aware by now, early Friday afternoon, in Western Michigan, between Battle Creek, and Kalamazoo, along I-94, there was a MASSIVE vehicle accident.

The latest figures are in excess of 190 vehicles, including cars, tractor-trailers, SUV’s, you name it, except for motorcycles, it was in the motorized melee. Sadly, there was at least one fatality. Most of you have seen the carnage on TV, You-Tube, and various other media outlets.  Below are some photos from both accidents:

One photo of the flaming mess. The one tractor trailer was laden with fireworks, there was one HELL of a show when IT exploded.

Another view of the carnage. To see this many trucks involved makes me SICK. THESE guys are SUPPOSED to be the “professionals”, prepared for shit like this.



About 3 hours after that mess had started, there was another huge wreck, involving up to 50 vehicles, this one was along U.S. 23 in Washtenaw County, in Southeastern Michigan. Sadly, there was one life lost in this mayhem as well. This wreck happened about 5 miles south of my home near Ann  Arbor. The conditions in BOTH of these huge wrecks were much the same. In this post, I am going to try to explain how, and WHY these accidents came to be, and HOPEFULLY shed some light on what to do if YOU should find yourself in similar circumstances.

The carnage, as seen from the Channel 7 helicopter, on U.S. 23 south of the Casa del Clyde Friday afternoon. One fatality in this pile-up.

Another view of the mess shortly after it happened.


Friday in Michigan was very cold, with temperatures running in the single digits above zero. There was also a pretty stiff wind of about 20 MPH blowing due west to east. As the Great Lakes are not totally froze over yet, the conditions on Friday were RIPE for this type of “lake-effect” snow squall activity.

If you are not familiar with lake-effect snow, the following is a brief explanation of what it is, and how it forms. The water in the Lakes, since it is not frozen, is warmer than the air above it. When the wind blows that cold air across the water surface, there is quite a bit of evaporation. As the winds blow across the expanse of the Lakes, the more moisture is lifted up into the cold air. When the air mass reaches land, which is MUCH colder than the water, the snow forms, and is dumped in huge amounts, normally over a well-defined area, depending on wind speed and direction. Below is a picture of how it basically works:

This photo illustrates the basic formation of lake-effect snow.


This is what it looks like when you are unfortunate enough to be driving through it. Had this happen to me MANY times during the illustrious career. Makes one’s ass clench tighter to the seat, of THAT I can assure you.


This is what the white ca-ca looks like as it is coming in off the Lakes. As you can see, it can be quite intense.


The mass that came over lower Michigan on Friday was rather large, and had a stiff wind pushing it along. Normally, these snows will fall from just onshore, to about 20 miles away from the Lakes. With this particular one, the first wave of it hit about 50 miles from the shore. Right about the area of the huge pile-up. This particular squall reached over 160 miles, which IS unusual. For the eastern part of the state to get this intense squall activity off Lake Michigan tells me the shit was hitting the fan in western Michigan.

This next portion is STRICTLY my opinion. We shall know when the results of the investigations are released. Having been through many of these squalls, in damn near ALL of them, the conditions are pretty much the same. As one is rolling along at the speed limit, which, in this area, is 70 mph for cars, 60 mph for trucks, one minute you are in clear conditions, the NEXT, you are suddenly in a curtain of pure white. And, since everyone reacts to road hazards differently, some will slow down abruptly, some, as much as it pains me, truckers especially will just try to keep rolling along at speed, thinking THEY are MUCH better than the average motorist. The trouble with THAT type of thinking will, and can, get you dead, or you will kill some OTHER poor soul.

To me, it is obvious what happened. The HEAVY traffic in this area, what with I-94 being the main shipping corridor between Detroit, southern Canada, and Chicago, on to points west, travelling along at posted speeds, came upon this squall and the shit hit the fan. The initial reports had an accident in the eastbound lanes, traffic started hitting their brakes on the westbound side, THAT is when all Hell broke loose as cars and trucks, careening along, were either caught off guard, or were oblivious to what was happening around them.

Instead of the vehicles slowing down, MORE of them came piling in to the original wreck, and as visibilty was severely impaired, WAY too many of these drivers, again in my opinion, were simply NOT paying attention to what was going on around them, in a total lack of “situational awareness”.

There is one factor here that puzzles me. These lake effect snow clouds are REALLY dark when one is driving towards them. If there is a clear sky, and some sunlight, these things are visible from about 20 to 50 miles away, depending on the size of the squall. In the conditions that existed in Michigan Friday, these squalls were pretty damn tall, and dark. The one that blew through to the south of my home was as dark as can be. I thought to myself, I’m damn glad I didn’t have to travel on U.S.23 Friday. It is NOT like one cannot see these damned things.

Now I realize not everyone travelling through this area will be familiar with the lake effect phenomena, BUT, those who ARE familiar with it must have simply IGNORED what was about to happen. I can come up with no better explanation as to WHY close to 200 vehicles could get trashed in this.

The one closer to my home, I can kind of understand it, as we don’t often get those intense squalls. BUT, that being said, you WOULD think as people approached these areas, and seen what was going on, a light bulb in their heads would illuminate, and MAYBE ring a bell that they should slow down, at the very least.

With the exception of the loss of lives, and injuries to the victims of these nightmarish accidents, I DO know a group of people who will be somewhat excited about these wrecks. And THAT would be THESE guys:

Wrecks like this can REALLY do your bottom line well in the 1st quarter.


To wrap this up, whether you are in the West, which gets dust storms, which are WORSE than these snow squalls, or in the snow belt regions, or where fog is a problem, PLEASE take the time to make yourself AWARE of developing conditions in front of you, and take the appropriate measures to keep YOURSELVES out of the horrific mess of these types of accidents. Especially if you are travelling through unfamiliar territory.


CLYDE. Hoping you all will be safe when driving.

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14 Responses to The Massive Michigan Pile-Ups Explained

  1. Situational Awareness, Clyde. What an awesome, common sense post, and I appreciate you writing this up.
    What happened Friday is quite different in incept than hitting black / glare ice. Like you’ve said, this mess should have been seen ahead of time and tactically prepared for.
    I live in an area where we have blowing/drifting ground blizzards off the plains, intense areas of dense fog, or just flat-out “Blue Northers”. And there have been times I’ve driven in four separate weather systems in the space of three miles, of a straight road.
    And then there are the feather-heads who drive in dense fog, without ANY lights whatsoever, and you come on them doing 40, and they are doing 20, and no tail lights. Butt-Clencher, indeed~!

    Great Post, Clyde. And good info.

    • Clyde says:

      Thanks, GF. Glad you liked it. After last winter,where this stretch of highway was hit quite often with the stuff, at least until the Lakes were frozen over,I would have thought the motorists in that area would have been just that much more aware of it.

  2. Kathy says:

    Thanks for the great explanation, Clyde. With weather apps on phones and warnings on the radio, it’s hard to believe so many people got caught unaware. Although they do come up fast, as you say, the drivers are simply not paying attention. Certainly these days nobody leaves enough space between vehicles

    One thing that was drilled into our heads when learning to drive, was to watch as far down the road as possible and be ready for anything. I thought our blinding dust storms were bad, but this looks much worse.

    • Clyde says:

      Thank you for reading it, Kathy. Having been in lake effect snow, and dust storms, I think the dust may just be a bit worse. At LEAST in a dust storm, the roadway is dry. I’m still amazed at the sheer number of vehicles, especially those that came barreling in AFTER the wreck had started.

  3. I.R. Wayright says:

    As a long time (50 years) driver and some times trucker of local deliveries and driving a straight truck to Port Newark and back to central PA, I always put on my four way flashers and slow down if visibility decreases to dangerous levels. If you can’t stop in the distance you see ahead, you are in violation of traffic laws and will be charged with driving too fast for conditions.
    I live not too far from I-80 and almost every year the road gets closed somewhere in PA for a snow squall related pile up. In one blizzard folks were stranded for more than a day and snowmobiles were used for rescues and to bring food or fuel to trapped vehicles.
    I recommend snow tires all the way around, if you must drive outside the city. The only place I ever got stuck was at the top of my own driveway after the snow plows have piled up packed snow over a foot deep. I keep four mounted on an extra set of rims.
    Watch for other inexperienced drivers during the first slippery snow conditions of the season. People forget how little traction there is after 9 months of good roads. Take some time to practice in an empty parking lot when it first snows.
    Teach your kids how to handle the stuff. And if you never feel comfortable with your skills to deal with slippery stuff, do what my wife does. She drags my sleepy ass out of bed at zero dark thirty to take her to work.
    Also, keep your fuel tank above half, carry a blanket, candles, shovel, flashlight and enough warm clothes and boots to be able to walk a bit to find shelter if your vehicle is disabled or stuck. Be aware that carbon monoxide can kill you if you run the engine to keep warm and your exhaust system isn’t up to par.

    • Clyde says:

      All good advice, I.R. Thanks for tips. I know EXACTLY what you mean about people “forgetting” how to drive in the shit.

  4. will be says:

    Clyde, good assessment. Weather conditions notwithstanding, the unpredictability of one’s fellow travelers should be foremost on any driver’s mind during mass excursions that represent ALL interstate travel these days. You can be following a vehicle doing 71MPH in a 70 MPH zone, and if a trooper is spotted, 9 times out of 10 that lead driver will immediately slow to 65 MPH causing anyone following much unjustified grief. The inexplicable judgements and decisions of one’s fellow travelers can kill you!

    • Clyde says:

      Will be, welcome to H&F, and thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Your first sentence is something that SHOULD be taught in ANY driving instruction. I always drove with the condescending view that NO ONE else could drive as good as I could. It must have worked. Damn near 3 million miles with ZERO chargeables before I hung up the keys.

  5. Hardnox says:

    Good post Clyde. Thanks for the explanations.

    I believe the drivers of yesteryear were more professional than those on the road today. There are so many 3rd worlders behind the wheel today.

    • Clyde says:

      Good point, but the fact is, there are WAY too many distractions that I simply did not have behind the wheel. With the cars, it seems as if every year, they put more non neccessary shit in them to FURTHER distract automobile drivers, with the trucks, most of the driver’s activities are now electronically monitored for speed, hours of service compliance, ad nauseum, the drivers are being electronically harassed by dispatch when they are taking their mandatory breaks, etc etc. Glad you liked the post. Thanks.

  6. vonMesser says:

    I got my driver’s license in Alaska (after learning to drive in Vietnam) Then was stationed in Iceland for 3 years. So, having some experience in bad-weather driving, I can say I’d only have been out in that weather in a life=death situation.

    • Clyde says:

      Unfortunately, most of them were just trying to get from point A to point B. Many times, these storms come literally from nowhere, THIS one was an exception. I think a lot of the problem was the old “familiarity breeds contempt” thinking. Thanks, vM.

  7. garnet92 says:

    Great post Clyde! While I’m not an expert in driving in white-out conditions, I have driven in blinding snow, icy roads, dust storms, and hurricane force wind and rain.

    You correctly identified the single most important thing that was largely ignored and likely caused both pile-ups – distracted driving. That applies not only to all of the other things vying for attention of a driver, but to being distracted from recognizing the conditions on the road ahead. Better to be honked at and get the finger wave than to plow into a slowed (or stopped) vehicle that appears from out of “nowhere.”

    I’ve always considered the big rig drivers to be the top of the heap in driving ability; they are the professionals, so when I see them slowing, it’s time for me to slow as well. But, often I’ve seen the amateurs flying by – especially the ones with the tricked out SUVs – oblivious to what has caused the big rigs to slow. It’s always great to see them off in a ditch or plowing up the median, hopefully uninjured, but with egg on their face as the trucks go by.

    • Clyde says:

      Great addition to the piece, Garnet. Thanks. The “official” report is supposed to come out later this week. I’ll be doing another post when that happens.