Deadly Fog

I was thinking recently about a huge multi-vehicle accident that happened in Virginia a few months ago involving 77 vehicles in thick fog. It was a terrible tragedy that made me wonder whether it was the worst possible, or whether there were others even more extreme. I didn’t know that an even larger pileup had already happened in England only a few days ago. That’s the scary part. Accidents involving fifty, a hundred, even two hundred vehicles or more happen somewhere around the world with alarming regularity.

That prompted me to abandon my quest to find the most extreme accident caused by fog. At some point the distinction became meaningless. The overwhelming sample size and the resulting destruction was way too large. Instead, I highlighted a single example from several nations. They all followed similar patterns involving motorists driving too quickly in low visibility and often without lights, and then unable to stop when an accident appeared before them. What may have been fender-benders under ideal circumstances transformed into huge chain reactions in the fog.

United Kingdom

Sheppey Crossing in Kent

The English incident happened on September 5, 2013, on the A249 at Sheppey Crossing, a bridge over the Swale from the Kent mainland to the Isle of Sheppey. Numerous news sources covered the event. The Independent noted that the accident involved 130 vehicles and caused a nine-hour delay. They described it as "the mother of all rush-hour pile-ups."

Visibility was very bad, down to 25 metres in thick fog… Drivers described being able to see no further than two or three car lengths ahead prior to the crashes, which left a trail of buckled vehicles stretching for several hundred metres, including cars thrown on top of each other and others flipped on to their roofs.

The Mirror more colorfully asserted, "Witnesses blamed ‘idiots’ for driving at speeds up to 70mph and failing to use their fog lights."

Michigan, USA

Interstate 96, mile 116
SOURCE: Screen grab from Google Street View image, I-96, Lansing, Michigan, July 2011

It was difficult to select only one example from the United States because of the frequency of large scale multiple-vehicle collisions. I went with the January 12, 2005 pile-up on Interstate 96 at mile marker 116 outside of Lansing, Michigan (map).

Typically Michigan in January should be extremely cold. Freak conditions caused the temperature to rise above 50° Fahrenheit (10+° c), rapidly melting snow and creating a thick fog by afternoon. The Lansing State Journal described "a sudden and blinding afternoon fog, resulted in Michigan’s worst roadway disaster in recent history, involving more than 200 vehicles, injuring 37, and killing two," in Hell on Earth.

The interstate highway was closed in both directions for twelve miles. Photos from the aftermath can be found on Michigan Fire Ground.

California also had more than its share of massive pile-ups caused by fog in the San Joaquin Valley and also closer to Los Angeles, for example a 200 vehicle smashup on I-710, the Long Beach Freeway, in 2002.


E17 Motorway at Nazareth, Belgium

The tiny Belgian nation experienced an oversized disaster on the E17 motorway near Nazareth (southwest of Ghent), on February 27, 1996. Fog, again, was the culprit. This one was particularly horrific with ten people killed from the collisions and ensuing fire. Over 200 vehicles crashed.

The tragedy is still remembered. published an article in late 2012, Monument commemorates pileup on E17 ("Monument herdenkt kettingbotsing op E17"). Please pardon the imprecise auto-translation into English:

At the entry and exit complex Deinze / Nazareth the E17 is a memorial placed on the night of Wednesday to Thursday. The artwork is in memory of the deadly pileup on February 27, 1996… At the entrances and exits complex on the E17 had that morning a treacherous fog formed. This exceptional whim of the weather caused an unprecedented pileup. Dozens of trucks and cars drove on each other.

Images of the memorial can be seen on the Nazareth, Belgium website.


Tranarpsbron, Klippan, Sweden

Sweden made the news earlier this year on January 15, 2013, for a hundred vehicle pile-up on the E4, atop the Tranarps Bridge (Tranarpsbron) in the southern part of the nation. As described at the time by The Local,

Photographs from the scene showed the dense fog that contributed to poor visibility, and lines of cars and trucks spilling haphazardly across the lanes of the low bridge near Helsingborg. The accident occurred just before midday on the Tranarp Bridge just northeast of Helsingborg, and the roads in both directions have been shut down since.

The Swedish press placed the blame on dense fog, slippery roads, and a recent change in the law that allowed trucks to forgo snow tires when conditions warranted. Apparently roads were in worse shape than some truck drivers anticipated. Fog compounded the issue and they couldn’t react in time to avoid collisions.

I know I’ll think twice now before venturing onto a freeway during foggy conditions. Failure to adjust driving patterns to weather conditions seems to be a worldwide phenomenon.

12 Replies to “Deadly Fog”

  1. Cool article. It’s just alarming how many people are too reckless. Anyways, I am a bit of an aviation geek and was playing around some websites and found the coolest geo-avia-historical thing. So US Airways operates a flight from Boston to Philadelphia. Not surprising. The funny part is that it’s flight number is US Airways 1776. The year of the country’s independence between the two major colonial hub. Thought this was just interesting and something of note.

    Keep the great geo-oddities coming.

    1. US Airways Flight #1 used to be out of Reagan National Airport back when their headquarters was in Arlington, VA… I actually took that flight before. Now I noticed their #1 has switched to Phoenix Sky Harbor as a result of the merger with America West.

      I wonder how commonly vanity flight numbers like the one you referenced and the one I experienced exist?

      1. Other US airlines’ flights no. 1:
        Delta: JFK – London
        United: Houston – San Francisco (no doubt carried over from Continental Airlines)
        American: JFK – Los Angeles
        Jet Blue: JFK – Ft. Lauderdale
        Alaska Airlines: Reagan National – Seattle
        Hawaiian Airlines: Los Angeles – Honolulu
        Spirit Airlines and Frontier don’t have a flight 1.

        Southwest Airlines’ flight 1 is by far the most interesting. It originates at Dallas Love Field, stops at Houston Hobby, continues to Orlando, then to Raleigh, then to Baltimore, and finally ends in Detroit.

      2. Back in the glory days of international travel, Pan Am’s flight 1 went from New York to New York, an around the world flight, eastbound, I believe. PA 2 followed the same route westbound.

        1. As of six months ago it’s no longer possible to fly around the world on a single airline. The last airline to offer that service was, of all strange ones, Air New Zealand.

          1. Weird thing I just found out while checking that claim: none of the major Russian airlines offer flights across the Pacific (i.e. between Siberia and the American west coast).
            In fact, the one major airline with significant presence in Siberia (S7) doesn’t seem to offer anything to the Americas at all (even to Brazil or the Caribbean).

          2. All by Air New Zealand, or was some of it codeshare?

            I thought the New Zealand–London route was via San Francisco, though I suppose it’s possible they had another one via Asia.

            Fun… and pity that it’s no longer possible.

        2. Both of the flights were popular with Pan Am pilots, but Flight 1 had the edge and therefore usually went to the pilots at the top of the seniority list. That is because the Sun can be very annoying in airliner cockpits above the clouds, and on the eastbound Flight 1 the Sun would be on the right side of the aircraft and therefore more of a bother to the co-pilot rather than the pilot.

  2. The highest death toll from a pile-up in the United States is from one on Interstate 75 in Tennessee around 20 years ago, which resulted in at least ten deaths. It happened in an area prone to heavy fog. In response, the Tennessee DOT installed gates at entrance ramps which automatically block vehicles from entering the highway if visibility falls below certain limits.

  3. Canada’s worst traffic accident occurred on the 3rd of September 1999. It happened in the fog on Highway 401 between London and Windsor Ontario. The pile up involved 87 vehicles, including up to a dozen tractor-trailers, and the line of wreckage stretched for about two kilometers along Highway 401. At its center, 15 cars and 5 tractor-trailers collided before being consumed in flames. Many of the victims, still trapped in their twisted vehicles, some with roofs sheared off, made desperate, dying pleas as their autos caught fire. This was the worst accident in Canadian history, killed 8, and injured 45.

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