10:30 PM, Friday, August 13th.
Somewhere Near Woodland, California
It's been a very long day, and I'm tired. I'm northbound on Interstate 5 with what I once heard described as a load of "sailboat fuel". I'm in the half-daze that you pray for when you're driving, letting my lizard brain handle the automatic aspects of navigating twenty tonnes of big rig through the night. You pray for it because otherwise you feel, notice, and experience every long minute of your eleven-hour driving day.
My conscious mind is possibly thinking about lizards. . .and redheads . . . and stories to write.
At some point, one of my internal checks trips. Traffic ahead is varying, slowing down. Red lights pool up ahead like blood cells rushing to a cut.
Oh yeah, I recognize this: CalTrans, the California Department of Transportation, has a crew out on the southbound side of a twinned causeway which stretches over the marshy local ground. Doubtless they are installing new potholes. I consult memory: the southbound side is reduced to one lane at the construction, but northbound traffic should be okay.
Sure enough, as I drop over the slight grade toward the bottom of the bridge deck, I see the glare of work-zone lighting. A big flat-deck has been backed up the bridge, and a construction crew are unloading an over-length steel beam from it.
But that's not what's slowing down traffic on my side. I drop the cruise control and slow to forty miles or so per hour. Now I see the line of headlights from the southbound traffic piling up at the two-into-one merge lane. I'm glad I'm not on that side--it'll be a long slow night to be filtering through there on a Friday. It's worse when you're a big truck. It takes a few seconds to get up to speed, so you have to take the open lane whenever you can get it. And while there's still an inch of that second lane open cars will accelerate past you, then cut in front of you (gaining a whole tenth of a second on their trip).
The line of headlights trails off in about a mile. The neat ribbon of red on my side appears to pile up against some unseen barrier in the dark.
I'm getting concerned. It might be more construction, but then they'd just have closed the southbound lanes further back. Yet the lane to my left looks open.
Then I spot it: An irregular collection of headlights about half-a-mile away. Two lights on the left shoulder, three pairs across the paved surface, and omminously a pair-and-a-half in the median. The CB chatter is starting to coagulate from a mess of signals warning of a traffic slowdown to a report of a serious accident.
Volunteers to my left have closed the northbound lane closest to the median. The first thing I see, silhouetted by headlights oncoming, is the nose of a tractor-trailer. But something's wrong. It's grotesquely elongated. The headlights of that silhouette are fully ten feet forward of where they should be in what I can tell is a Freightliner Century-class (one of the most common fleet trucks in North America).
As I draw level, the glare and dazzle of headlights fades, and I realise that the reason the truck seems elongated is that its nose is firmly buried into what seems to be a GM SUV, possibly a Cadillac Escalade. I feel a momentary flash of evil glee that another gas-sucker will be off the road.
Seattle. I'm lurching slowly through a traffic jam caused by a four-car pile-up, stuck in the right lane of a stretch of road where people enter from the left-hand lane and try to exit on the right only a mile further up. I've just put my rig into gear when a swanky white GM SUV, neon glowing and bass thumping, tries to pry in from the left without signalling. It's too late to do anything but slam on the brakes and stall. Meanwhile, another vehicle has decided to flash up the right shoulder to the exit, around me. The two almost collide as I slam on my brake, check for traffic behind me (for which I can never be responsible but even so. . .), and hit my air horn.
The car from the right caromes off up the exit ramp. As traffic begins to move the SUV driver salutes me, one-fingeredly.
There's a whining noise in the air. I get closer to the scene and my glee evaporates as I realize that the SUV's rear end has been completely crushed. The air bag is deployed and the windsheild shows a huge spiderweb. The truck is buried so hard and deep into the SUV that only one of it's widely-spaced fog lights is visible. The whining noise is the SUV's horn, and as I pass it seems to me that a blanket has been placed behind the windsheild to cover something in the front seat.
The two vehicles are in the median, the forty-eight-foot trailer slewed off the road and into the middle at an angle. Visible behind them, across the road from me, are three other vehicles. All the colors are washed out to a uniform dark grey by the wash of headlights, accident flares, and flashlights, plus the dry dust and heat that predominate on this unnaturally green desert floor.
The first is a nondescript compact. Badly-battered but upright. I think one tire is flat, and it looks as though at least two windows have been shattered.
Winter, 1998. I'm heading across South Dakota, as I have been all night. The snow has petered out, but the rain is coming down and with temperatures approaching 0 degrees Celcius, I've been gratefully following an orange-coloured county sand truck across the interstate for many, many miles.
Dawn brings grey to the horizon. There's fog and dampness, and visibility is only adequate. I'm chafing to get up to highway speed (around 70 miles per hour), but have to hang behind the sander at something approaching 50.
After a while, I drift off. Awakening from my daydream I see that the sand truck has disappeared, and that I'm now doing seventy across rotting, patchy ice.
I take my foot off the gas, hoping that the engine will slow the wheels down. My "Jake brake"* burps once, then quits, and I feel the light sensation of having all of my drive wheels lock up. No problem, I'm trained for this sort of thing. My brain dispassionately sounds an alarm as I struggle to move slowly and gently; There's a slow-moving white station wagon in my lane.
I ease the throttle back down and hear the terrifying idle of the engine surge as the tires grip again, now down around 60 MPH. I'm about to move into the left lane, to avoid the wagon, when a purple GM Van, possibly an Astro, dashes past me at about 75, and ducks back into my lane. I'm already moving into the left lane for avoidance and don't dare cut back in at this speed lest I lose control altogether. I watch the inevitable happen.
The purple van has nearly hit the white wagon when he realises his mistake. Desperately he pumps his brakes. The white wagon is accelerating furiously to get away from him as he goes into a spin.
The detached part of my brain (the bit not yammering and swearing) is keeping me from shifting down because it realizes that I'm lightly loaded and could well enter the same spin as the van. It counts for me: One, two three. . .
The van has spun completely about seven times. I manage to grab a lower gear without skidding as it fetches up, slewed across both lanes. In any other part of South Dakota, I could run onto the shoulder and go around him. But here are two of those meaningless zig-zag steel railings that occasionally seem to be put where there's no reason to have them. The nose of the van points at the left-hand one, and at the current angle, his left rear tire and taillight are in my lane.
No options. I ease my foot down for control, steer as gently yet quickly as I can, and try to thread sixty-five feet of eight-foot-wide flat-deck through a gap roughly eight-feet-six at roughly 55 miles an hour.
As my cab passes behind the van I see it's reverse lights flash, and its tires spin as the owner drives deliberately into the median ditch.
The white car has disappeared into the gathering fog. It takes me about two miles to slow down and come to a stop. The purple van doesn't reappear. I get on my CB, warning any traffic I can't see about the van.
"Yeah," returns a reply "he's standing there calling on his cell-phone. He's okay."
I haven't been aware that I was holding my breath until now.
Behing the smacked-up compact is what seems to be a mid-nineties Chevvy Cavalier. The rear door is stove in, possibly missing, with cocommittent damage. I make out the shape of something I hope is a stuffed toy on the back seat.
Calgary, Alberta, 1997: As I approach the light in the centre of three lanes I realize I have to turn right. I signal and look into my mirrors. One car--orange or yellow--races up my inside. The blue car hangs back.
I don't know what distracted me. I look back into the mirror and can't see the blue car (a Buick, I find out). As I move over there's a grating sound and resistance from the wheel. On my inside lane a horn sounds angrily. The blue car has tried to rush up the lane as well.
We pull over, and I ask the woman at the wheel if she's okay.
"You hit me!" she says, stunned fury in her voice.
On the far side of the road, in the far lane, is the worst part of what I can see. A mid-sized car, wheels in the air, ruined and smoking. None of the windows I can see have survived whatever happened here tonight.
In LA the previous week I see three cars tangled in the opposite lane. One, a Chevvy Tracker SUV, is inverted. But no-one seems to be hurt--they're just standing around talking. The ambulance arrives as rubberneckers in my lane slow down to gawk.
In LA you can have your favourite television station alert you by cellular phone to news of a police chase or serious accident. Presumably you could then watch the coverage on your in-car DVD-TV, mounted in the dash, the monitors of which I see flickering uncomfortably often as I ramble up and down the I-5.
I'm through it and northbound again. The first ambulance screams by me southward, followed by four cops. I kick my speed up to nearly sixty-five. The smokey-bears are busy.
At 1 o'clock that morning I hear that the I-5 will open northbound at 3:00 AM. The southbound side will reopen around 6. Six people have been killed. Six cars were involved. I'm glad I didn't see the sixth.
The next day, each time an RV slumps along in front of me at 50 in a 60 zone, or an obnoxiously small car with an obnoxiously large muffler and a sound system that may be in violation of certain arms treaties cuts me off at the knees, I find myself giving them a little more rope than I otherwise might.
There but for the grace of God go I.
Note that this article and accompanying video succeed in blaming the trucker even though nowhere does it remotely imply that the accident was his fault in any way. More worryingly for me personally, is that the SUV was a KIA minivan, apperently, and the truck, which I swore blind belonged to GTI, didn't. In fact, none of the cars was what I thought it was. Proof that humans make lousy witnesses.
. Reluctantly I concede; this starts to look like it might be largely the driver's fault.
, maybe. By the way--how can a "main route linking northern and southern California" have eastbound lanes?
I wonder what happened. But I hypothesize: As the rig approached the construction, he like everyone else
, delayed slowing down. The stopped traffic came as a shock to someone in front of the minivan, who hit his brakes, hard.
I hate being truthful. It's depressing, and at the moment it gives a distorted picture of some hard facts:
1) Truck crashes get lots of attention, and legislation. Car crashes get none.
2) Even when the crash is directly caused by a car driver, news organs will slant the story against the truck. It may be possible to cnvince me otherwise on this point, and I invite anyone to try.
3) On this same day, at least two other people were killed on the same day within a hundred miles of this accident. At least eight died within four hundred miles. How do I know? Well I had to search a hell of a lot harder to find them than to find the truck crash.
*(The engine brake or "Jake Brake"--from the Jacobs Manufacturing Co.--is a device that uses the engine to resist the wheels, thus slowing the truck--it's what makes that incredibly loud burping sound you hear from trucks on steep hills.
Many municipalities with steep or dangerous hills have demonstrated their committment to safety by banning its use.)