On the Road

In the wink of an eye

May 2, 2012

The after-effects of a serious crash can last years, or even a lifetime. The impact is entirely disproportionate to the time it takes for a crash scenario to develop. One instant you're cruising down the road, the next you're smashed to smithereens.

Sometimes nothing can prepare you for what lies ahead.



Below you'll find couple of YouTube video clips showing just how fast a crash can happen.

This isn't a rant about distracted driving, though it could be. As you'll see, in the time it takes to merely look at your phone, never mind dial a number or send a quick text message, a vehicle could have crossed the median and slammed into you. Or a vehicle a few hundred feet ahead. Either way, it's all over but the shouting before you have time to even grasp what's happening.

In this first clip, the viewer knows something is about to happen because it's on YouTube, but the driver with the dash cam becomes aware of a problem less than a tenth of a second before the truck ahead -- and a lane to the right -- explodes into a hail of shrapnel. The viewer sees the car that caused the crash enter the highway via an on ramp, but we don't see why the car winds up crossing the truck's path.

Even the truck driver, judging by the time between when the brake lights come on and when the truck spins around backwards and cabless, had milliseconds to recognize the threat and respond.



This next clip is interesting (and tragic of course) because the truck suddenly veers left while traveling along the right-hand lane of a highway. It's not a maneuver you'd be expecting, and naturally would not be preparing for or guarding against.

Within two seconds (thousand-one, thousand-two), the truck goes from apparently completely normal operation to hurtling through a median barrier. It strikes an oncoming truck head-on and both are instantly turned to fire.



The next clip has a happy ending -- happy enough, anyway. No serious injuries, and nobody killed. It too illustrates how quickly your morning commute can be the worst thing that happens to you all day.

All seems well, when without warning a tractor-trailer hauling a dump box loaded with 30 tons of sand crashes over and through a concrete Jersey barrier before flopping onto the oncoming left lane of the freeway.

In the space of about two seconds -- to the YouTube viewer's eyes, given the benefit of instant replay -- we can see the truck begin to swerve left toward the median. About a second later, the tractor disintegrates as it hits the concrete. The car driver has about another second to dash across three lanes of traffic to steer clear of the expanding debris field.



The Aftermath

It's one thing to come across wreckage along a highway after the fact. It's usually a slow-motion pass, with opportunity to gawk or puzzle over how it might have happened. With the smoke cleared and the injured on their way to hospital, accident scenes rapidly become just part of the scenery for drivers who see many over the course of a year.

With nothing but the debris scattered across the roadway, it's hard to imagine the forces at play when two 40-ton vehicles meet head on at highway speed. It's quite another thing to see it on film. It's brutal and violent, and one can only imagine what might be going through the drivers' minds just before impact.

Given the speed at which it all occurs, it's easy to understand why visual accounts of what happened are not always accurate, or even similar from one witness to another.

I was involved in a crash back in the early nineteen-eighties I still can't explain. One minute I was driving westbound along I-94 near Gary, Ind., and the next I was jackknifing violently and spinning around backwards facing east in the westbound lanes.

Afterwards, the police explained that a car had cut back into my lane after a failed attempt to pass, probably striking my left front wheel, and somehow pressing the bumper up against the tire locking the wheel. With an empty tank trailer, I was pretty light. With the wheels turned hard left, the tank spun around, jackknifing the truck and turning the tractor around backwards.

It was all over so fast I had no idea the car had hit me, or why I was stopped pointed in the wrong direction facing a wall of oncoming traffic. In a cab-over tractor, that's not an enviable place to be.

I post these videos as a reminder of how quickly a routine trip can change the course of your life. In less than a second, your world can be turned upside down or backwards. The consequences are for you to imagine. But do imagine what could happen in the time it takes look out your mirror, or to change the station on the radio. Indeed, in the time it takes to pick up your cell phone and just think about dialing a call.