Tuesday, January 06, 2009

By Diana L. Chapman

It was just your typical drive down the heavily traveled and oft-dangerous Interstate 5, as we zoomed home from a pleasurable holiday at my mom’s in the delicious Napa Valley. The graying mountains along the freeway whisked by as cars dashed past us.

On this drive, we would witness the sad fate of two dogs – unexpectedly -- and one that continues playing over and over again in my mind. It reminds me sadly that drivers on this freeway must be prepared for anything. Fog. Snow. Ice. Winds. And yes, even canines.

Over the years of heading up north for Christmas, this rather tedious drive seems to take on a life of its own in its 756 mile stretch across California. Having done it so many times, I’ve always tucked away the myriad of fatal and injurious accidents over the years.

In 2007 alone, the CHP reported 1,660 accidents along the I-5 stretching from southern Los Angeles county to Stanislaus in the north.

Of those collisions, 956 people were injured and 31 were killed. That is in one single year. So you can imagine what chance the two dogs had. Virtually none. Like young children, they are helpless.

When I called Jaime Coffee, a spokeswoman for the CHP, and asked about this dangerous freeway, she quickly explained that the officers don’t call the Interstate dangerous. “It’s the drivers,” she said.

This is true. As time whizzes on, it seems our senses get lulled and dulled and drivers and passengers alike start texting, talking on cells, driving at high rates of speed and doing all sorts of crazy things to keep them occupied. It’s long. It’s tiring. It’s boring.

But our lack of caution is exactly what drives us into perilous circumstances.

I was just thinking this when I spotted what appeared to be an unusual crate crushed like a square box, and flattened like a pancake, on the passenger side of the road. My mind started clicking into all the possibilities of what it could be, when I glanced toward my husband to tell him about it.

And that’s when I saw the Australian Shepherd/collie mix limping in the giant center divide – a wide swath of empty earth littered with glass, gravel, tumbleweeds, plastic bags, ratty old clothes -- and my heart sunk. My mouth opened and let out an ugly gasp and my husband yelped: “What? What?” You know that stupid thing you accidentally do that terrifies the driver.

Had we been a few seconds later, we might have been swerving to miss – or worse hitting -- this unfortunate canine.

It probably wouldn’t be to long before the shepherd would be dead, struck down by cars racing 80 to 90 miles per hour or higher.

I knew there was little time to go back. I also knew that my husband, Jim, wouldn’t take the risk of our lives or other humans by trying to rescue the dog. And worse, I knew as a reporter for years and years, that if the CHP was called, they might have to run the dog down as one of the only ways to protect the public. Officers do this if drivers start veering all over the place to avoid the canine or getting out of their cars to help, increasing the dangers dramatically.

Sitting back, I clenched my fists and knew there wasn’t anything I could do, but I couldn’t quit thinking about that dog.

No matter what I did after that, I couldn’t quit staring at the divide, thinking how many stories could be told from that stretch of land, how many animals, how many people, how many wrecks and deaths the center divide had witnessed.

The set up is next-to-impossible to get in and out of without crossing the dangerous interstate. That made me ponder that just about anything – except possibly a human -- could be lying out there for days on end without anyone noticing.

Tick. Tick. Tick. My brain kept pulling up the picture of the injured dog, with the thick black fur and the tipped white-tail and it’s remarkable fortitude to carry on despite its injuries. It just kept walking, limping, walking. Limp. Limp.

I wanted to cry, but couldn’t. I couldn’t take my eyes off the center divide. “Who takes care of that land?” I asked my husband. “Who cleans it up? How can anyone get in and out of there safely at any time of day?”

That’s when I spotted another dog in the very left lane, a champagne colored pit bull with a white chest and one leg lopped off and head appearing crushed. I gasped again. Two dogs within miles of each other. Had they been dumped? Had that been their cage that had fallen on the side of the road? Had the owners accidentally lost the cage? But no one appeared to be trying to get these dogs back.

It was clear the pit bull was dead, which didn’t bode well for the life of the collie/shepherd. How awful to have been the driver who hit the pit bull and probably couldn’t swerve in time without hitting other cars.

My mind was jumbled with questions. What if we had stopped and tried to help. But I knew that was stupid. My girlfriend once stopped on a freeway to help a German Shepherd and a CHP officer was furious. Not only did she put herself in danger, he told her, and as much as this sounds terrible to say, I’m sure rightly so, she put all the other drivers on the road in danger.

After the second dog siting in less than 20 minutes, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to write this story to remind people that the Interstate is no picnic and that cars driving as fast as bullets need to be more cautious – as you never know what will appear before you, dog, human or otherwise.

As we continued on, the next thing I saw sent chills down my spine. A child’s giant, blue teddy bear was lying on its back face up, looking to the sky.

It was a big reminder that not just dogs have died here. Children have too.

Sadly, often it can be our own fault, the fault of the adults.

I’ll never forget when an officer stopped us once on the 395 as we headed to Mammoth Lakes. We were going 85 mph, having lost all sense of how fast we were driving. Our son was strapped in his car seat in the back with a mop of blond girls, probably about age three.

“You just don’t understand what it does to me when I roll up to a crash with a child your son’s age," the kind officer told us. "I have a child that age.”

The point was well-taken. There was no argument from us, because I couldn’t imagine for a second being an officer pulling up where children have been killed or maimed. This takes me back to the question. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to write about this. But I had too.

I decided that it was perhaps just a gentle reminder to think while driving on I-5.

It doesn’t take much for that road to become a stick of dynamite and a single driver to become a match. Combine that with the tule fogs, driver exhaustion, the snow, rain, ice, turbulent winds, steep grades, unsafe passes and what you have is a highway that not only stands for the freedom of travel – but unfortunately, often death.

Here are some tips from the Automobile Club to Avoid Dangers

“Like the I-15 and the I-10, during the holidays the I-5 tends to have a lot of long-distance drivers and that creates a greater risk of crashes that are caused by drowsy driving,” according to Marie Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Triple A.

“According to AAA, research shows that being awake for 18 hours produces driver impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05. With 24 hours of no sleep, the equivalent BAC is .10. You are much more likely to be involved in a crash while driving drowsy because fatigue impairs your reaction time, judgment, vision, information processing, and short-term memory.”

To avoid driving while fatigued, the Auto Club recommends these tips:

--Begin the trip early in the day and set reasonable daily itineraries.
--Share driving responsibilities with a companion if possible by rotating driving shifts.
--Stop every 100 miles or every two hours to get out of the car and walk around, since exercise helps to combat fatigue.
--Restrict night driving.
--Make sure you get a good night's sleep.
--If you find yourself getting drowsy, find a well-lit, safe area to pull over and take a nap. Even 20 minutes will help. Caffeine will also help, but not as much as sleep.

The other big factor in winter driving is poor visibility caused by fog, rain and early darkness. Here are a couple of brochures dealing with how to drive in bad weather: http://www.aaanewsroom.net/Assets/Files/20061213144200.GoinSnowBrochureNP.pdf

And http://www.aaanewsroom.net/Assets/Files/200612131444160.GETAGRIPBrochureNP.pdf