Where are the solutions that could have helped in a wrong-way-driver accident like this? Let's fix it.
If the automobile accidents don’t touch you personally you are lucky. I have been lucky.
35,092 people died in automobile accidents in 2015, according to U.S Department of Transportations’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which estimates that number for 2016 will be at least 10% higher. “The second quarter of 2016 represents the seventh consecutive quarter with increases in fatalities as compared to the corresponding quarters in the previous years,” says NHTSA’s 2016 first half report.
While industry and government agencies are working everyday on solutions to make things safer, the problem sometimes becomes personally concrete.
A friend and I, and the traffic around us, were all legally driving 70 miles per hour on a dark highway in Eastern Oregon, a section right outside the Columbia Gorge River, the deep river canyon that Lewis & Clark floated down 211 years ago.
It gets so dark out there on Hwy 84, where the population is sparse, you can’t see the landscape at 7:30 PM in October evening (Monday Oct 24). Close to pitch black with no street lamps on the freeway and a few distance lights off the road, a building here and there. The 4-lane highway is straight and you can see the other west-bound side only as car lights come toward you emerging from the vanishing point. Gradually you can interpret the lights heading toward you as coming safely from the other side of the freeway.
In the air are some mysterious red lights marking some tall structures for planes that even you can’t see from the road. You know the Columbia River is to your left somewhere, and you just out of the canyon of the Gorge and into flat sage brush country, but your world is the road: You only concentrate on the signs, the road markings, the cars and trucks— trying to stay alive. And of course you move closer to your destination.
Two men (and a dog) met each other on this road but not in a good way. These men were some of people we were about to meet, too.
One moment our brains are going 70 mph, then the next we are squinting to see if that congestion of vehicles and trucks in front of us is moving or is it stopped? Milliseconds and our 70-mph brains realize traffic is coming to a stop. Like money in the bank, my ample distance from the car in front of me ensures I get more time on my life, but I worry for those behind me: I’m flashing my brakes at the car following me. I hope it comes to controlled stop.
What is this—road work? Congestion? The cars behind us come to a safe stop; in front of us is a handful of cars and two semi trailers with full lights—all our lights illuminate a ghostly scene. In the darkness, I see people running back and forth over the highway into the sage brushy medium strip and then back again to the right side of the road. What have they lost? What are they just crossing the road to collect some lost item? I don’t see any police lights.
We are the second group of people on the scene on a bad accident.
The first group is this set of people running back and forth from the left side of the highway to the right, checking the cars to see if they can help the occupants. One of them, a young woman, comes to my car window and I ask her what happened. She said one person was driving the wrong way on the freeway and collided with an eastbound car. A head-on collision, no survivors. Two people are dead. That eastbound car was likely going 70 mph.
One car I can’t see because a semi is blocking my view to the right. The car is off the road somewhere in the scrub on the right side of the highway. The other vehicle, a pickup truck with a king cab, is in the median, its front end mostly smashed in. Debris is everyone on the road.
In the next four hours, we sit 2nd from the front of the line watching the police, fire, ambulance, and finally the morgue, handle all the situation. The first responders from small town of Boardman and adjacent communities came out and crawl the scene like busy ants, wearing reflective jackets and using flashlights, working the problem. We hear snippets of their conversations to each other and on cell phones. (“One man is his twenties, the other man in his 50s”....”our department isn’t equipped with a vet...can you get someone out here for the dog?”; “where are you from?” asks the officer interviewing a witness, a young polite truck driver who is probably on a work schedule, “Alaska.” They move far enough away from our parked cars so we can’t hear them. One officer calling home asked if someone could “order me a sandwich with roast beef and just leave it out for me. I won’t be home for a long time.”)