If you’re driving your car, which scenario would be worse?
(a) Suddenly going out of control and seeing what you’re about to hit.
(b) Suddenly being unable to see and not knowing what you’re about to hit.
Not much of a choice, is there?
Several dozen motorists were confronted with scenario (b) on Sunday when dense fog appeared in the Finzel area of Interstate 68. Fifty-eight of them either hit something else or themselves were hit — or both. (See: “58 vehicles involved ...,” Dec. 2 Times-News and “You couldn’t see a thing ...,” Dec. 3, both Page 1A.)
We’ve devoted considerable space in recent weeks to the relatively recent phenomenon of tractor-trailers speeding, going out of control and wrecking on I-68 coming through Cumberland. It’s happened largely because of an increase in truck traffic here that resulted from opening of a new section of U.S. Route 219 in Pennsylvania, and the fact that some drivers aren’t familiar with the nature of the road.
Other truckers who do know about the steep descents and sharp turns take their time and drive prudently have little or no trouble.
Portions of I-68 farther to the west of Cumberland pose hazards of their own, as drivers who regularly travel the road are aware — snow, ice, deer crossing the road and fog. No matter how well you know the road, such things can jump up and hammer you regardless of how carefully you’re driving.
Some of the drivers involved in Sunday’s pileup were new members of the Bittinger and Grantsville volunteer fire departments, who were familiar with the road. As first responders, they were already on the scene and able to help, and volunteers from Eastern Garrett and other companies were only minutes away.
Estimates were that the chain-reaction accident covered a stretch of highway 500 yards long. Ten people were treated for non-life threatening injuries after the Finzel incident.
This was a big accident, but it comes nowhere near to being the largest mass-motor vehicle accident on record.
So far as anyone knows, the largest car crash in history was a 259-car pileup in 2009 on the Autobahn near Braunschweig in Germany. It involved a series of accidents covering about 18.5 miles of road and individual traffic jams several miles long.
Several drivers lost control of their cars because of heavy rain. Most were driving too fast and too closely behind other vehicles for the weather conditions. The sun was low on the horizon and made it difficult to see.
The resulting series of collisions lasted for about two hours. More than 60 people were injured, at least 10 of them critically.
The largest mass-pileup in American history took place in 2002, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles on Interstate 10.
It involved 216 vehicles, caused 41 injuries (but no deaths) and was blamed on fog. It started when a tractor-trailer crashed into the center divider and led to other accidents on both sides of the highway. About two miles of the road were closed for several hours.
Fog caused the second-largest mass-accident, involving 200 vehicles near Mobile, Alabama, in 1995. There were 90 injuries and one death, and what made it worse was the fact that it involved a stretch of Interstate 10 that crossed a bridge over Mobile Bay, which spawned the fog.
Sunday’s pileup wasn’t even the biggest in Maryland’s history. That one also took place on I-68 in Garrett County and involved about 90 vehicles near the cut on Big Savage Mountain in 2003. Heavy fog also was responsible.
The first accident was at about 1:20 p.m., and the largest, involving about 50 vehicles, began an hour later.
Two people were killed and nearly 100 others were injured, and it happened on Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend. One man died when he got out of his car and was hit by another vehicle.
A 17-mile stretch of the highway was closed for nearly 24 hours.
What should you do when you’re driving and suddenly are in the midst of fog?
The best thing is to get safely off the road, well away from travel lanes, until the fog clears and stay in your vehicle. Otherwise: Slow down, keep your low-beam headlights on (high beams reflect off the fog and lower visibility even more) so you can see and other drivers can see you, activate your hazard lights and stay focused on the road.
Turn down the radio or turn it off altogether, don’t talk with passengers and avoid any other distractions. You might even roll down the window so you can hear what’s going on around you.