Monday, October 26, 2015
Recently I witnessed a nighttime accident on Interstate-81 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. There was an unmistakable "boom" signaling a rear-end collision. One truck (that appeared to be a large rental truck) had rear-ended an 18-wheeler behind me -- and I watched the faster moving rental truck continue past me on the road with heavy damage on its right side, before eventually veering to a shaky halt in the median. As far as I could tell, both drivers were alive, but at the first safe spot, I called 911.
I got off of I-81 at the next exit. I paused both for gas and to take a breath of crisp night air, before taking a back road the rest of the way home. While I was fueling, an older man in the car next to me, a car with West Virginia license plates, pointed to the I-81 overpass where traffic was crawling through more flashing lights. He asked, "Is it safe for us to get on the road to get home? We live about 75 miles from here." Frankly, I had no way to answer that with any confidence. He shook his head and said to his companion, "I think we should stay in a motel tonight."
A few days later, I attempted to determine the outcome of any investigation. I had seen emergency vehicles on their way to the accident. One state police source I contacted put me on hold to check "records," and returned to tell me she had no indication of an accident in "her" jurisdiction occurring that evening and therefore passed me onto the next closest state police office. That office's personnel told me that they would not look for records of an accident. I was then informed I was not entitled to any information because of privacy laws, as I was "merely" a member of the public. One person suggested I look for newspaper or television media reports to see if there was "public" information on the accident.
One reason I would like to see any records for the accident is that particular corridor often strikes me as problematic. I suspect readers will have their own hot spots in mind. I go out of my way to avoid that road, especially at rush hour, but it is the shortest route and I had expected it to be fairly clear at ten at night. But, are late hours even more dangerous than rush hours, especially if there is "road work?" I try to stay aware of the location of the virtually constant road construction projects in the area, but that is not easy.
Another reason I wanted to see any records was that almost as soon as I merged on to 1-81 that particular evening, certainly within 5 minutes, I felt like something was going to happen. To put it bluntly, despite good weather, the traffic conditions that night seemed chaotic and therefore unsafe.
There was heavy truck traffic in the right-hand lane and it was slowing. Cars in the more left-hand lanes were driving significantly faster, and some vehicles in the right lane were trying to swing out to join them. These cars were moving too fast, especially if there was a problem up ahead. There were multi-colored flashing lights in the median ahead of us, for reasons I did not yet understand. Was there an accident ahead? Later it seemed the answer was "probably not," but there was some kind of construction ahead that I never actually reached. Before the accident, I managed to find a "hiding" spot between two heavy trucks in the slow moving right-hand lane, resigning myself to a slow drive home as the trade-off for being out of the way of the faster moving cars and trucks. I simply was not surprised when the "boom" behind me signaled big trouble.
Over the weekend, I was struck by several additional thoughts. First, I found no reports of the accident I had called into 911 on various internet websites. See, for example, Roadnow.com and AccidentDataCenter.com. I cannot tell who maintains those websites. Good that they exist, but I do not see any record of that particular accident on these sites, nor any specific warnings about the on-going, if sporadic, road repairs on that particular stretch of road.
If the reasons for a highway accident are not determined and reliably reported somewhere, how can public officials determine priorities for traffic safety or traffic control in the future? There may not have been any serious injuries that night, but the conditions seemed ripe for a serious accident. Shouldn't a member of the public have a right to know if his or her own report has been recorded? What I did learn was that there was an "overturned vehicle" nighttime accident in almost the same point on that road two nights before. Did the two accidents have similar contributing causes, perhaps from inadequate signage, road congestion, or confusing warning lights, in addition to driver inattention?
I also was thinking of the older couple who was clearly -- and probably wisely -- intimidated by going on a major highway that night.
In the year 2015, with all of our modern technology willing to send us endless details about inane trivia, shouldn't there be a way to use mobile devices to more easily, reliably, and safely access information on traffic safety conditions and route alternatives before you enter a highway? There are commercial mobile apps -- but they so often seem to have out-of-date information or no information. I know some areas -- L.A. comes to mind -- where there are 24-7 radio stations reporting traffic conditions. Subscription-paid satellite radio offers traffic and weather information for "big" cities. But what about heavily traveled corridors in less urban centers?
Perhaps reliable information centers exist and I'm not aware of them -- but neither was the older couple who ended up in the Motel 6 across the street from the gas station. And I wonder how often our crowded, aging traffic infrastructures make older adults feel like prisoners?