Mother Nature's Soup

Navigating fog requires constant concentration and an awareness of your driving limits.

Phil Johnson admired the clear, blue sky from the top of the Grape Vine mountain pass, then gazed down into the valley below at the thick dense cloud he was about to enter.

The 45-year-old driver for Marten Transport continued down the southern California hill and peered through thick fog, hoping to find the small truckstop tucked away next to the road. But no luck. He crept down the mountain, taking two hours to travel 30 miles, until he reached a truckstop he could actually see.

When the fog cleared at around 2 p.m. the next day, he hit the open road after winding through the maze of cars that had managed to just get off the road in the thick of the fog.

Many drivers face similar conditions during certain times of the year as they travel the country. Fog is a dense, thick mist – in fact you are driving through very low clouds – that can lower visibility sometimes to a matter of feet. It can be nature’s most hazardous driving condition in which to navigate. Large pileups with multiple injuries and fatalities are not uncommon in fog-prone areas across the country.

The most important thing to remember, says Michael Bridgman, a driver for Transport America, is “Don’t drive beyond your ability to stop.”

Dangers, especially other vehicles slowing or stopping, can hide in dense fog. Most lights, cars’ brake lights and even emergency lights at accident scenes might be invisible until the last second.

“You can’t see anything until you are right on top of it,” says Bridgman, 61.

Any driver in the fog should be able to stop immediately to avoid harming himself or other motorists.

Because lights are hard to see in the fog, many drivers put on their four-way flashers along with their low-beam headlights to signal to other motorists their presence and slow speed.

Low-beam lights shine the light toward the pavement and help other motorists see you. High-beam lights direct light up into the fog and make it even more difficult for other drivers to see you.

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Fog lights can be useful because they are specifically designed to penetrate through thick fog. But they can be dangerous to other drivers if they are mounted too high. “Fog lights would help, but sometimes they blind the oncoming traffic,” says Michael Ford, a driver for PFT Roberson Transport.

If reduced visibility makes driving dangerous, one should find a safe way to get off the roadway. Try to find a safe place like a truckstop or rest area if it’s possible. If the side of the road is the only option, be cautious when attempting to pull off onto the shoulder. Trucks easily get hit or collide with other vehicles when they do not get entirely off of the road. “When people pull off, [many of them] think they are far enough over, but they are not,” says Johnson.

The standard safety rule is to remain in the lane closest to the right in case you need to exit the highway. But because other drivers may be getting off the roadway, Johnson says he sometimes prefers driving in the left lane on four-lane highways to avoid hitting any vehicles that are not entirely off the road. “Because of people pulling over, if you drift to the right, ‘bam’ you can have an accident,” he says.

Motorists going too slow may cause a problem as well because people may attempt to pass you, says Vernon Schreindl, who drives for Roehl Transport. “I’ve come pretty close to having people hit me head-on, who were try to pass,” says Schreindl, 60.

Areas most prone to fog are near large bodies of water, mountains and hills going into low valleys, bayous and other swampy areas and large flat lands found in states like Florida and Texas.

Certain times of year create fog in different ways. Bridgman says when you cross rivers during the fall, fog comes from the warm water meeting the cold air. When you cross them in the spring, fog is created by the cold water meeting warm air.

To help keep motorists safe, some fog-prone areas such as Interstate 64 through the Afton Mountains in Virginia and I-75 north of Chattanooga, Tenn., are clearly marked.

“Some places have flashing yellow lights in bad conditions,” Bridgam says.

As if normal fog were not dangerous enough, truckers also face icy fog, which presents its own set of additional challenges. “Truckers really hate ice fog,” Ford says. Ice fog is what happens when there is fog and the temperature gets below freezing. Ford often runs into this problem in Michigan. “Ice fog ices up your mirrors, ices up your windshield,” he says. “Windshield wipers don’t help.”

It also makes the road slick and then forms into black ice. “January through April are the worst months,” Johnson says.

The best strategy in safely negotiating foggy roads is to not let them sneak up on you. If you know your route is going to take you to potentially foggy areas, prepare before you hit the fog bank. It’s easy to check regional weather on a computer. Johnson uses his CB radio to check the weather from other drivers so he can be prepared depending on the conditions ahead of him. “I pre-heat my mirrors,” he says. “So they are already heated up when you get there.”

Check over your equipment before you leave to make sure your mirror heaters and windshield wipers are working. “Fog puts a fine mist on your windshield,” Johnson says. “It will collect and hinder your visibility. So keep your windshield clean.”

Fog Driving Tips

  1. Avoid driving in dense fog if possible.
  2. Slow down before you enter a patch of fog.
  3. Use your low-beam whether it is day or night. (High beams reflect off the fog and create a white-wall effect.)
  4. If you have fog lamps, turn them on.
  5. Turn on your wipers and defroster to remove moisture from the windshield.
  6. Be sure that you can stop within the distance that you can see.
  7. Roll down window and listen for sounds of vehicles suddenly braking.
  8. Use the right edge of the road or painted road markings as a guide.
  9. Watch out for slow-moving and parked vehicles.
  10. Do not change lanes or pass other vehicles unless absolutely
  11. If you must pull off the road, signal first, then slowly and carefully pull off as far as possible.
  12. After pulling off the road, turn on your hazard flashers.
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