Another One for the Annual Darwin Awards

by Tina Blue
October 12, 2002

          Today's newspapers show pictures of a pile-up on Interstate 43, about 60 miles north of Milwaukee.  In the deadliest traffic accident in Wisconsin history, more than two dozen vehicles crashed on a foggy highway at about 7:30 Friday morning, killing 10 people and injuring 34 others, seven critically. 

          The crashes occurred on both sides of the interstate, as heavy fog engulfed the road just west of Lake Michigan.  One after another the vehicles plowed into each other, and at least eight burst into flames. State Patrol Sgt. John Jones said that visibility was "next to nothing" when he arrived at the scene (The Lawrence Journal-World 12 Oct. 2002: 4A; all quotations are from this article).

          According to Jones, the evidence of vehicles "double stacked--vehicles on top of vehicles, vehicles underneath the tractor-trailer unit," suggests that many of the cars may have crashed while driving through the fog at a high rate of speed.

          One driver, Larry Demeny, who slowed down because of the fog, said that he veered into a ditch when he saw the underside of an SUV ahead of him, but drivers who came along behind him "just kept piling up."  Demeny said, "You couldn't see very far.  You would just hear brakes squeal and then the sound of metal clashing."

          Another driver, Kevin Fetterer, who also managed to swerve in time to avoid the pile-up, said that cars and trucks continued to plow into each other for four or five minutes.

          When the fog lifted a few minutes later, the pavement was marked by black skid marks.

          Okay, sure, we have to deplore the loss of life and the injuries suffered by motorists involved in this accident, but I think we have to do more than that.  We also have to consider how these accidents occur.

          Here in Lawrence, Kansas, we often have sudden fierce rainstorms.  During such storms the rain pours down so hard that visibility is zero and windshield wipers are absolutely useless.  On a few occasions I have been on the road when one of those storms kicks up.  Usually there is no warning that it is going to be such a downpour.  One minute it looks like a normal rainstorm, and the next, you are driving underwater.

          If I am not already on the road when such a storm hits,
would persuade me to get into a car.  If I am on the road, I will try to get to someplace safe and pull over until the storm passes.  (These storms are usually as brief as they are fierce, seldom lasting more than a half-hour.)  But as long as I must drive through such rain, I reduce speed and drive as if my life depended on it--because I know it does.

          Occasionally in the winter we have blizzards that are the snowy equivalent of those murderous rainstorms.  Snow and wind are such that there is no visibility, and the roads are slick, slick, slick.

          But even as I reduce speed under such terrifying conditions and drive with extra care, other drivers pass me going five or ten miles an hour over the posted speed limit, honking at me and flipping me off for going too slow.  On more than one occasion I have passed one of those drivers a few minutes later, trapped in a ditch he has skidded into--or smashed into a parked car, or into the rear-end of another car stopped at a traffic light.

          The black skid marks left by the cars and trucks involved in that Wisconsin pile-up, along with the screech of hastily applied brakes and the sound of metal impacting metal at high speeds--these things tell us a lot about how that pile-up occurred.

          The fog was so bad that, as the state trooper says, visibility was zero.  These drivers could not see what was ahead of them until they were right on top of it.  But apparently that little detail did not enter into their decision to keep barreling along at a high rate of speed.   It was 7:30 a.m.  No doubt many of them were in a hurry to get to work.  No matter.  If it had been 10:30 a.m., they would have been going just as fast.

          As long as drivers consider it their natural right to go at least as fast as the posted speed limit, and often ten miles over, no matter what the weather conditions, we will continue to see horrendous pile-ups like this whenever visibility is reduced or the roads are made treacherous by fog, snow, or heavy rain.

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