Feb. 11, 2008, Hanford, California: A woman was driving four of her family members, including two of her grandchildren, ages 12 and 3 months old, to the train station on what was the foggiest day Hanford had seen that season.
It was 6 a.m., and the stretch of road was 12 3/4 Avenue where it “T’s” into Excelsior just south of Laton. This wasn’t an unfamiliar road to her — she had driven this path all her life.
While driving, she took her eyes off the road for a brief moment as she was looking down to turn on her windshield wipers. Unbeknownst to her, she was approaching the stop sign up ahead. Disoriented in the fog, she apparently didn’t think she was that close yet. She was hit by an oncoming semi truck.
Her vehicle was hit hard on the driver side, and spun around for what seemed like eternity. All the suitcases, clothes in them, diaper bag with all its belongings, books and papers were strewn all over the road and nearby fields. All of the occupants were wearing their seat belts.
The two children made it out OK; the other two adults were transported by ambulance to Hanford Community Hospital, where they were released a few hours later.
The driver wasn’t so lucky. The force was so great that she was ejected. She was thrown to the side of the road. Cars were speeding by and running over all the debris, close to hitting her as she lay on the side of the road while the family scrambled for assistance. Her body was broken and barely alive.
She was rushed by ambulance to Fresno, where she underwent surgery. During surgery she was revived twice. In the days to follow she was in a coma and unrecognizable.
Along with all the brokenness, she suffered a brain injury. How severe it was would not be determined until she came out of the coma and could start rehabilitation. Experts had no idea what the future would hold for her, and wouldn’t even venture to guess. She was in the hospital until June of that year. She had several seizures, brain bleeds and more surgeries.
Now approaching the 5-year anniversary of the accident, this woman continues to live in a nursing home, where she has been bound to bed and wheelchair needing assistance for her everyday needs. She can recognize everyone from her past and remembers things more from a long-term memory status, but has difficulty remembering events up to 15 years prior to the accident. Her family has seen her through sporadic behaviors and changes in her medications with the hopes of regulating some sense of normalcy.
This story is true. This woman was born and raised in Hanford. This woman is my mother-in-law.
Many of us were raised here and have driven in this fog all of our lives, but that doesn’t make us untouchable from fog-related accidents. We should treat each foggy day with a sense of awareness — at all times. That one brief moment of unawareness changed the lives of many people forever. Something so simple, but with drastic, devastating and permanent results.
With the recent fog we’ve had here in the Valley, I think it’s that time of year again to share some safety tips so that you will be prepared for this year’s foggy season. Below are some safety tips provided by the California Highway Patrol that may at first seem obvious to the casual reader.
Unfortunately, many drivers tend to disregard these simple educational notes when barreling through dense fog. I hope you take the time to review these tips often, and then practice them with diligence when your visibility becomes impaired while driving.
• Drive with lights on low beam. High beams will reflect off the fog, creating a “white wall” effect. Also, driving with just parking or fog lights is illegal.
• Reduce your speed — and watch your speedometer. Fog creates a visual illusion of slow motion when you may actually be speeding.
• Avoid crossing traffic lanes.
• Travel with the driver’s window partially open. Listen for traffic.
• Use wipers and defroster. (My note to you: Make sure you know where they are by feel. Don’t take your eyes off the road.
• In some areas, watch for CHP pace cars to guide you.
• If your car is disabled or you can’t continue, pull well onto the shoulder and turn off lights. Move away from your vehicle.
• Consider postponing your trip until the fog lifts.
• If visibility diminishes to a point that you no longer feel safe driving, don’t stop in the traffic lanes.
For the latest highway condition information, you can call the Caltrans Highway Information Network at 1-800-427-ROAD. You might want to program this number into you cellphone so that you will be prepared, no matter where you are traveling, and have that information at your fingertips.
Elizabeth Hall is an emergency services specialist for the Kings County Public Health Emergency Preparedness program. Read all her Preparedness Facts articles at http://bit.ly/uT4nh3.