Clear Direction on Driving in the Fog

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Learning from the Thanksgiving Day pile-up in Texas

It couldn’t have been a worse Thanksgiving morning for more than 100 drivers traveling through Beaumont, Texas, on Interstate 10. A fog rolled in and in just a few short minutes, a nightmarish chain effect of car and truck crashes had vehicles strewn all over the highway.

Earlier this year, the Texas Legislature passed a bill allowing the highway to increase from 65 mph to 75 mph and the traffic was moving briskly when a severe fog rolled in.

Two people died and more than 80 were critically hurt as a result of fast cars, trucks, and vans slamming into each other at top speeds. The two who died were in a Chevrolet Suburban SUV and were crushed by a tractor trailer. A mist of fog was seen as photos and footage of the pile-up made national news.

Fog creates low visibility (iStock)

Fall and spring are both heavy seasons for fog. There are nearly as many types of fog as there are cloud formations. In fact, fog is a sort of ground level cloud. Sometimes fog starts out as a mist, but it can grow into what we commonly call a “pea soup” and that’s when the trouble begins.

So how do we deal with this sudden blindness when it hits? As our friends in Texas now know, you can find yourself in a world of hurt if you don’t slow down, but trucks moving at 75 mph have a much harder time braking with all that tonnage. Since nearly one-third of all fatalities are weather-related, it’s good practice to be reminded of what safety experts say you should and shouldn’t do when you’re left driving in the fog.

Immediately drive slow and steady
Slow down and go only as fast as you can see in front of you. Do not change lanes or pass another vehicle unless absolutely necessary. When you do see a car in front of you, keep a safe distance at all times, giving yourself room to negotiate around it if something were to happen. Generally, keep an eye on your speedometer because people are known to unconsciously increase their speed in fog.

Understand the nature of fog
Fog doesn’t stay the same — sometimes it gets thicker and often, it magically lifts. Fog is made up of condensed water droplets; the result of the air being cooled to a “dewpoint” where it can no longer hold all of the water vapor it contains. Remember that fog also wets the highway, so the chances of slick, oily, non-gripping roads increase as well.

Do use: lights, fog lamps, hazards, defroster, and wipers
The brights are not going to help when driving in fog; they’ll actually hurt. You should turn on regular lights and fog lamps and hazard lights if it’s thick enough. This will warn drivers behind you of your lowered speed. Also, use the windshield wipers and defroster because fog can cause more condensation on your windows and the moisture could make them fog them up as well.

Don’t use: brights or cruise control
No brights — they will actually make a shadow on the fog, creating even less visibility. Also, be sure your cruise control is off, as you may have to brake suddenly, and there’s no telling when, so stay in control of your vehicle in the fog.

See and hear what you can
If the fog hits and you can’t see where to go, use the right edge of the road or roadside reflectors to follow to the next offramp or exit. As for hearing, roll your windows down and listen to road — do you hear a car or truck up ahead? How about a car revving it’s gears up behind you? If so, it may be time to find a pocket on the right and turn on your hazards.

Not on our list is the most obvious tip: If you can, pull over and wait for the fog to lift. Although this isn’t always possible, it is truly the best advice if you want to be truly cautious in a thick fog.

Technology to save the day someday
What we can hope for in the future are cars that detect objects in front of us without us having to actually see them. The National Transportation Safety Board recently put pre-collision alert systems on their Top 10 list for 2013 — to make these types of devices available on all cars at all price points.

The most effective type of Pre-Collision System (PCS) are the small radar detectors that are placed near the front of the car, usually in the grill. These radars are constantly sending out quick bursts of high-frequency radar waves. These waves bounce off the nearest objects and return to the sensor, where a computer unit calculates how long it took for the signal to leave and bounce back.

Some cars take this information and simply give you a warning beep, others can autonomously apply brakes, but the technology does exist and the NTSB believes it can stop 1 out of 5 weather-related accidents from happening.

So now that we’re clear, remember that it’s best to be prepared for one of the worst weather conditions known to drivers. Perhaps in future years, we’ll all look back and laugh about how we used to drive without radar, but for now, use caution, slow down, and make clear-headed decisions when hopelessly stuck in the fog.

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