Preventing traffic pile-ups

This month has been a deadly one for big rigs on windy highways shared with Santa Clara County, our neighbor to the east. In two weeks time, in two separate incidents, two commercial trucks lost control and drove through traffic stopped ahead of them -- killing two and injuring several others in their respective collisions. During the morning commute on June 10, a 26-year-old truck driver claimed his brakes failed while descending northbound Highway 17 at Bear Creek Road south of Los Gatos, sending him into 10 vehicles, injuring seven and killing a Santa Cruz man. Then, during last Monday's evening commute, a rig driven by a 48-year-old Madera man hit eight vehicles at westbound Highway 152 and Ferguson Road east of Gilroy, injuring several people, three seriously, and killing one man. All the victims in the two crashes wore their seat belt. Alcohol was not suspected in either collision. Pile-up crashes not rare What can we as road users do to try to prevent such a thing happening to us? Banishing our life's blood of shipping goods and services to certain hours of the day or night is not the answer as that opens up other economic and highway safety concerns. While the CHP investigates the cause of these collisions, including equipment failure and distracted or drowsy driving, it is important to note that these kinds of collisions occur regularly between passenger vehicles. While driving on Highway 85 through the Cupertino area last month, I witnessed the aftermath of a collision involving a Corvette and a Corolla. Apparently, the Corvette failed to stop in time and wound up wedged completely under the Corolla. I posted a picture of it here on the blog at In this month's large truck crashes, the fact that big rigs were involved, well, their size alone means they will cause more damage. Basic tips In search of solutions to these pile ups, Street Smarts sought advice from Officer, Bradley Sadek, spokesperson for the Santa Cruz area CHP office. Specifically, Street Smarts wanted to know what can be done both from the perspective of the person sitting in traffic while a runaway vehicle barrels toward them, as well as for the person who's vehicle is not obeying their commands. While the scenarios vary in the different situations that may arise, his advice was to "practice defensive driving." Here's more:
  • Wear your seat belt -- Sudden acceleration and deceleration changes are among the largest causes of injury in a collision, he said. "Going from 55 mph to 0 mph or vice versa in fractions of a second can be catastrophic to the human body," Sadek explained. "The modern three-point restraint system functions to keep the occupant in place for supplemental systems, such as air bags."
  • Allow a space cushion -- "Many drivers rob themselves and others of valuable padding in the form of space" between them and the car in front of them, he said. "Often, when coming to a stop in traffic, drivers creep up to the traffic ahead, eliminating the space that could turn a two vehicle crash into a crash involving many more vehicles. At a stop, a driver should be able to see the rear wheels of the vehicle in front of them. This not only gives a bit of space if someone rear ends you, but it also enables you to move in an emergency."
  • Pay attention -- "Any time we investigate a collision on the highways, we ask, 'Did you see the other vehicle before the collision?' All too often we hear, 'No.'" he continued. "Being aware of what is going on around your vehicle is an important facet of defensive driving. While there is no hard-and-fast rule for moving out of the way, knowing what is coming, is vital to making an evasive decision."
When asked if drivers should brace for impact or jump out of their vehicle and run upon seeing an out of control automobile or big truck coming their way, Sadek said it depended on the situation. There are times when staying relaxed and buckled up inside the metal cage that vehicles are is the safest thing a person can do for themselves, he said noting that drunk drivers often survive severe traffic collisions because the alcohol makes their bodies so loose and fluid. In case your vehicle is the runaway In the event your brakes fail, "your first response is probably going to be to push harder. It may take several seconds to realize the problem," Sadek said. "You might try the emergency brake, you might try down shifting, you might try turning the car off, you might try shifting to neutral, you may try sideswiping a guardrail to slow you down." In regard to a stuck accelerator, try to find a way to separate the engine's power from the transmission to slow the car such as shifting into neutral or turning off the vehicle, he said. "The most important things is to not forget you are driving," said Sadek. Take advantage of what control you have over the vehicle. Brain storm reactions to unfamiliar and unexpected situations." Defensive driver role play Sadek advised drivers to think about various scenarios that may arise on the road, which may help them react better if something really does happen. "In law enforcement training, a large portion is just mental practice. If someone does pull out a gun or starts a fight, we have already fought that fight in our head.
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