Dispatches from the road, Part I

Finally, finally, it's come.

Vacation time. Yesterday, my wife and I hit the road to do a grand tour of the Midwest to visit both sets of parents and some old friends, hang out at a lake house for a couple of days and then Chicago for a few more, and generally try to chill out between bouts of driving. Fear not, Orac-philes, however. Although blogging will become somewhat sporadic and there will be at least a couple of days where I will have, in essence, no Internet access other than a dial-up connection through a number that is a toll call from that location (the horror, the horror), it will not cease altogether. I have a few already-written odds and ends I can post, and I probably will have some time to post the occasional brief piece. (Heck, I already have one idea for such a piece that shouldn't take more than 5 or 10 minutes to write and post.) Also, because I am on vacation, it's unlikely I'll be posting at my customary pre-work posting time of 6-7:30 AM. There's no way I'm getting up that early while on vacation. Any time of the day is fair game now (well, any time after about 9 AM or 10 AM, that is).

I even have a special treat for early next week: an article by a guest blogger who will discuss why certain attacks by activists on the Danish autism studies showing no decline in autism rates after the removal of thimerosal from vaccines are fallacious. I'm honored that anyone would take the time to compose something like that for me to post in my absence. As for my work, regular blogging will resume in a couple of weeks. As for the upcoming Skeptics' Circle this Thursday, I will definitely manage to get enough access to post a plug for it on Thursday or Friday, and I will be trying to check my e-mail at least once every couple of days.

In the meantime, I was just thinking (always a dangerous activity). My wife and I were cruising along the Ohio Turnpike yesterday. We had made fantastic time over several hundred miles and had just stopped at a rest stop to gas up the car, our final stop before our destination, my parents' house. My mother-in-law called my wife on her cell phone and asked us if we had encountered an accident. At that point, we hadn't, but she warned us that she had seen a news report of a huge accident on the Ohio Turnpike in the direction we were going. My wife and I both hoped that it was after our exit, so that we would miss it.

The collision was several miles west of our exit. Unfortunately, the traffic jam was more than large enough to extend well east of our exit.

About 8 or 9 miles before our exit, traffic abruptly came to a complete halt, and then crawled for the entire way. Via my mother-in-law, we learned that the collision had taken place nearly three hours earlier, although the news report shows that it had actually taken place nearly five hours earlier. Apparently, a semi truck had plowed into the back of a car stopped in traffic, causing a chain reaction set of collisions. The traffic was still backed up when we hit the area. As we crawled through traffic, seldom moving more than 10 MPH and hitting the brake every few seconds, I started to fume, as is my wont whenever in a traffic jam. We were losing at least 45 minutes to this.

Then I thought about it some more. What caused my inconvenience at the end of a 10+ hour drive had meant the abrupt and violent end of a woman's life and serious injuries to several others. The name of the woman who died was Michelle Williams, and she was only 56. No doubt, when setting out on whatever trip to whatever destination she and her husband were heading to from Pennsylvania, Mrs. Williams had had no idea that it would be the last trip she would ever make. She was probably doing what we all do, thinking about her plans for the day and the day-to-day tasks that needed to be done, with no thought at all that she wouldn't ever get to do them because she would be unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had no way of avoiding her fate as the semi truck barreled into the rear end of the car behind Mr. and Mrs. Williams' car, pushing it into their car and smashing the life out of Mrs. Williams in the process. Even now, based on my experience as a helicopter physician years ago, when I would occasionally land on the very same Ohio Turnpike a hundred miles east to tend to the victims of such accidents and transport them to a trauma center, I can picture the victims, bloody and in pain, trapped in the twisted pile of metal and plastic that was until moments ago their transportation, if still conscious crying out in pain and fear, wondering if they would live or die and why it had to be them. I didn't used to think about this much when I was actually dealing with trauma victims (there was too much to do to try to save their lives), but, now that I'm older and don't do trauma anymore, I can't help but ponder that it could just as easily been me and my wife stopped in that traffic waiting to exit the Ohio Turnpike onto I-75. Or, it could just as easily been you stopped in a traffic backup anywhere there are highways and cars and careless truckers who change lanes too rapidly and don't realize traffic has stopped until it is too late to stop. That's always one of my biggest fears when I'm stuck in traffic, because I'm utterly powerless to prevent some idiot from ramming into the back of my car. The only thing you can do in such a situation is, if you realize you're going to be hit, to take your foot off the brake and hope for the best.

When I thought of this, I realized that, although the traffic jam had made the end of my day into a rather bad one, the cause of the traffic jam had made Mrs. Williams' day into her last one on earth. Getting angry over a one-hour delay in reaching our destination just seemed so petty after that. Yes, it's a bit of a cliche, but after an incident like that, it's hard not to think about how random life (and death) can be, and how none of us can ever take it for granted that we will be here tomorrow, no matter how young and healthy we are. Unfortunately, most of us, myself included at times, act as though time and life are endless and that we will live forever, failing to make the most of the only lives we have.

What a downer of a thought so early on in my vacation.


  1. Amen, sir. I live in L.A. and fume daily over traffic and its evils. However, many of the traffic jams are caused by accidents, and I have acquired a new patience, of late, from thanking providence that I am not the victim of the accidents. How busy we all are!

  2. If you stop anywhere in OH (closer to Cleveland) pick up a 6-pack of Great Lakes Brewing Company beer. I highly recommend the Burning River Pale ale. Better yet, stop of at the brewery in Cleveland to have a pitcher and some bread pudding - fantastic (assuming that bread pudding is still on the menu).

  3. That was a great thought you posted. I'd like to marry you. Well, if you weren't married. And if you weren't male. But it was a great post anyway!

  4. As an insurance investigator dealing with numerous death claims per year, the head-on collision between a drunck driver (.28 BAC) and a limousine near my home hit pretty hard. The limo driver and a little girl, the flower girl in a wedding a few hours before, were the victims. (She was decapitated.)I wound up handling that for one of the insurance companies. As I age, like a fine wine, I develop new views of death.

    Over the years I have found that being stuck in traffic is not such a bad thing. It is actually safer than driving and, today, satellite radio really does help.

  5. You're smarter than me. For me, it took being a participant in a multi-vehicle freeway pileup (on a motorcycle, no less) to come to the realization that there are much worse things than simply being delayed by a traffic snarl-up. Since then, any time I see traffic starting to back up, all I can think is "someone's having a much worse day than I am." Oh, and you don't even want to know what I think when I see some squidboy (or girl) go whizzing by on a bike with no helmet or protective gear. That's another story. Let's just say that any rider who doesn't wear a helmet and protective clothing isn't just stupid -- he or she lacks even the most rudimentary imagination skills.

  6. P.S. -- I'd like to add that, based on my little experience, the trauma folks at the Huron Road Hospital in lovely Cleveland, Ohio (not to mention Cleveland EMS) are just really fantastic.

  7. I have to admit that I had never thought about it in that way before.

    When my iritation level increases during prolonged exposure to traffic, I generally do not give thought to the reason for the delay, only the result. However, I honestly think that the next time I am in that situtation, this post will come to mind.

    Good reading as always =)

  8. Did not intend for my previous comment to be anon heh. The above was myself.

  9. Sometimes the backups are just caused by bad driving (e.g. people braking too late and then slowing even more than the traffic in front, forcing traffic behind to slow even further, etc).  It doesn't take death or even damage to cause a backup, it just takes a small fraction of idiots.

    In this case, it's the idiot who was driving the semi.

    Motto:  Sometimes shit just happens, but most of the time people do shit.

  10. Chaperonin60: I lived in Cleveland for 8 years and have been to the Great Lakes Brewing Company. I'm not as big a fan of it as you. Actually, as far as Midwest microbrews go, I prefer Goose Island Honker's Ale from Chicago.


    You may not be aware of this, but in the early 1990's I moonlighted as a flight physician for Metro LifeFlight in Cleveland while I was working on my Ph.D. I've been meaning to post some stories from that era...

  11. Orac, I'd be fascinated to read stories from your days with Metro LifeFlight. I forgot to mention my gratitude to the rehab staff at Metro. Good folks.

  12. GARY,

    What a great way of looking at things. i had never thought about this kind of thing happening untill
    August 12, 2005 me and my freind was in the middle of this accident that took mrs. Williams life. What a very sad and tragic event that changed my whole outlook on life as well as his. we had gone on a mission to pick up a van for my sister who was paralyzed when she was hit by a drunk driver from the rear almost two years earlier to the exact date of this tragic wreck. unfortunetly the van substained alot of damage but we where ok its amazing how you dont think much about day to day life until something like this happens in just seconds everyones life came to a screeching stop and left us all standing there on the turnpike wondering what had just happen and whatching the tragic events unfold as the chopper landed to carry mr. williams to a trama center and all of this because of one careless semi driver.

  13. I rarely read blogs, and they are usually of people I know. It's a coincidence that I ended up reading this today. This morning a deer jumped out in front of my car, and yesterday a workman on the side of the road fell backwards in front of my car. Thank God in both cases I was able to swerve and we were all fine. But both cases were a strong reminder that life can change or end in an instant. I need to stop wishing frustrating times away, and don't plan to live when you're less busy or have more time. You may not have more time so look for the good things in every day and don't waste time rushing along.


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