Saturday, February 16, 2013

Beware of "The Bowl"

If you're a regular reader, the phrase "beware of the bowl" probably causes you to assume that I'm referring to these bowls, but the one I'm going to talk about now is far more dangerous, in my opinion.

But first, we must have our standard disclaimers.  Do you remember back in August 2012 when I noted for the record that I'm not a traffic engineer, mobility expert, or any such related professional?  At that time, I was describing what in my opinion was the conspiracy of dangerous circumstances that existed at the corner of West Walker Street and League City Parkway.  To my relief, that intersection got revised lickety-split after I published those diagrams - the flashing yellow left-turn light sequence was deleted, as I personally feel it should have been.  I don't know if that revision was in any way related to the alarm I sounded in my post, but it got done. 

So I'm not a traffic engineer or anything remotely resembling it.  (BTW, I apologize for my frequent disclaimer-packing of posts, but in this age of rampant SLAPP suits and other insidious curtails on the First Amendment, a blogger can't be too careful.)  But I like to offer my opinions, just in case there proves to be any merit to them. 

"The Bowl" whose existence I am postulating today is the one found on IH-10 just southwest of Taylor Bayou.  If you've ever driven between Houston and Beaumont on IH-10, you've driven through what I call "The Bowl". 
Low-res screengrab courtesy of KTRK. 
"The Bowl" is reportedly the location where Debbie and Vincent Leggio were killed this past Thanksgiving, and where about one hundred and fifty vehicles (!!) were ensnarled in a pile-up of inconceivable magnitude.
The scope of this event absolutely boggled the imagination.  KTRK's headline read "Two killed, dozens injured in massive I-10 pile-up".
Video screengrab courtesy of KTRK-TV. 
There was no shortage of commercial news coverage of that event.  Here is a piece by KHOU.  CNN published a blurb which thousands of people linked through to Facebook.  The story was widely re-broadcast by overseas sources, including at least one in Pakistan

KHOU (and probably other news services) made what I consider to be a very telling statement during their reporting on this incident:  "Early last year there was a similar smash-up on that same stretch of roadway."  If memory serves me correctly, there was also an inconceivably-high number of vehicles involved in that previous incident - but I can't find web references to it now because it has been submerged by the avalanche of reporting on the subsequent Thanksgiving 2012 event. 

Beaumont Enterprise went on to recount the sequential mechanics that resulted in the tragic deaths of the Leggios. Here's the thing, though: I can't locate any source which examines the potential for contributing factors originating with the environment.  It is possible that the dearth of information on the web is simply an artifact of reporting bias: most news outlets focused on the details of the accident itself.  Any investigative reporter who also focused more closely on prevailing roadway conditions may have simply gotten lost in the crowd. 

So in the absence of that perspective, let me tell you what I've personally observed about the area of the crash, which I have been driving through at least several times per year for about twenty years now.  Again, I'm not an expert and I can't pass judgment on these things.  If anything, I'd hope that a strictly-personal account such as the one below would raise enough questions in some investigator's mind such that a formal analysis would then be done (if it hasn't been already) to confirm or deny the existence of unusual conditions in the area of question.

"The Bowl" is roughly centered on Mile Marker 835 on IH-10. 

Here is a close-up of a Leggio highway memorial that has been erected near the foot of this Mile Marker.  May they rest in peace.

Sorry for the blurry photo - in this previous post, I explained how I do a lot of pic-taking simply by shooting photo frames without looking, because I can't take my eyes off the road. I took the photos in this post on or about January 29, 2013.
A lot of pavement scarring is visible in this area, suggesting that accidents have taken place here.

But here's the main thing to notice in this photo, which was taken from the "eastbound" (really the northeastbound) lanes: this area is extremely flat, but bordered by this line of tall forest you see in the background.  The effect of this is that the IH-10 lanes are at the bottom of a shallow "bowl".
Here's a view to the north / northwest, looking across the westbound lanes and showing the ring of trees being mostly unbroken.
Still eastbound, here is a view of where the freeway is vaulted over Taylor Bayou.  If you are eastbound on this section, this is where you drive back out of "The Bowl" as I perceive it. 

Do you see how these features seem to work together?  Not only do the trees form a ringing enclosure around this section of roadway, the freeway itself may be helping to furnish the final piece of an almost-continuous elevational barrier that helps to restrict air movement at this location.   

And furthermore, what exists at the bottom of "The Bowl"?  Mostly agricultural fields which tend to retain and transpire large quantities of moisture.  So to my non-expert perception, there seems to be both a moisture source and a confining source here, perhaps moreso than in other areas. 

All this is just pure speculation on my part, but these are the photos I took in conjunction with that speculation.
Driving up over the rim of "The Bowl" at Taylor Bayou.  Up, and out. 
Here's the view in the opposite direction, heading southwest toward Houston, driving down the slope from the Taylor Bayou bridge.  Do you see how a confining line of trees is present on the opposite side of "The Bowl" as well?  They appear to form one almost-continuous coherent ring around these ag fields and this section of freeway. 
In the twenty years I've been driving this freeway, I have experienced instances when I have been absolutely dumbfounded at the atmospheric conditions that manifest in "The Bowl" - conditions that didn't appear to exist as intensely on either side of it.  I'll be driving along merrily and then all of a sudden - WHAM - I'll descend the Taylor Bayou embankment and instantly, I'm thrust into an ethereal mess the likes of which I haven't even got words to describe.  There have been times where I've seen this roadway slow to a crawl, with some drivers pulling onto the shoulder out of apparent fear.  I've watched drivers eyeballing each other, staring open-mouthed, with the same expression written across their faces:  "Is this for real?!"  Regarding the Thanksgiving 2012 crash, the authorities were widely quoted as noting the extremity of the atmospheric conditions here: "the fog was so thick that deputies did not immediately realize they were dealing with multiple accidents".  Yyyyup.  Been there, done that. 

And there's yet another potentially-conspiring factor to keep in mind regarding this location:
A short distance before entering "The Bowl" from the west side of it, one crosses the Jeff County line, where the speed limit increases accordingly.  This speeding up occurs very close to the location where drivers should arguably be slowing down at those times when visibility becomes significantly reduced. 

Here is my personal advice:  If you're eastbound and you see any fog at the point where you pass this pair of signs, Be Very Afraid, because driving conditions might get much worse very quickly from there. 
Anyway, there are my personal observations and opinions on this phenomenon.  I drove through "The Bowl" two more times again yesterday, to and from a business meeting in Beaumont.  The sun was shining and the air was crystal clear, but as always, I kept my eyes open to see if any new signage has been added.  I did not see any.  I don't know if a formal study has ever been done on this area, but I keep hoping that maybe someone will do one, and decide that warning signs are indeed warranted.  Maybe just a simple advisory that dense fog is possible, something along those lines.  Because if you aren't made aware that this quirky little bowl-like place exists, it could take you by terrible surprise.
Is something like this warranted?  Has anyone done a study to confirm or deny whether an advisory should be posted?

Sign screengrabbed from this site.

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