Interstate accident snarls blind drivers for hours

Last Monday was movie night for the Wright family. The kids had been conspiring to see the new film “Spy Kids 4,” and the closest theater showing the film was 35 miles away in the college town of Harrisonburg, Va. Undeterred, we left our own small community in the late afternoon, enjoyed dinner near the theater and settled in for the 7 p.m. showing.

The movie was fine, but the real fun was unexpectedly having the theater to ourselves. We talked loudly, switched seats and shouted out predictions about what twist was coming next. After the movie, my 7-year-old son stood up front and taught a dance class on doing the robot and the sprinkler. I got a C and immediately filed an appeal.

It was all quite memorable, but the drive home became the lasting impression of the night. Not long after pulling onto Interstate 81, we passed a portable electronic sign warning of an accident 14 miles ahead. Unfortunately, accidents on this busy stretch of interstate are common and frequently tie up traffic for hours.

We tried to calculate where on the interstate the accident might be and what exit options we might have. With my wife driving, I pulled up a popular traffic website on my iPhone. The site was slow and clunky – perhaps it was overwhelmed with traffic of a different kind – and the highway cameras were unresponsive for the area we needed.

I called a helpful friend at home and asked him to try the same website on his computer. He did, but with no better results. From the comfort of his living room and Mario pajamas, he playfully tempted us to stay on the highway and risk it.

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” he taunted.

Just then we passed another sign, this one an orange metal diamond sign used for warnings. It said simply, “Accident Ahead.” In the distance, we could see the Virginia Department of Transportation vehicle that had likely put the sign in place. I noted that the nearest exit to bypass the accident was then less than a mile away.

“Call the ball, Maverick,” my wife said in her best “Top Gun” aviator voice. “Risk it or take the side roads?”

My buddy, still on the phone and becoming less helpful by the second, piped into my ear. “It’s probably nothing, it’ll be clear by the time you get up there. Roll on.”

The exit came into view. The ramp would take us a few hundred yards to an old rural two-lane highway that runs parallel to the interstate and would deliver us home just as easily, though at slower speeds.

I looked at the cars around us; not a single one moved toward the exit lane. “Come on, dear,” my wife said. “This one is yours.”

“Don’t do it!” My friend on the phone shouted loud enough for my wife, children and probably the nearby motorists to hear.

I blurted out at the last possible second, “Get off!” I was reminded again that my wife could be a stunt-car driver.

We took the exit and began our detour home, knowing that at some point our two-lane highway would run close enough to the interstate to tell whether we’d made the right call. Sure enough, a few minutes down the road we observed through the trees a sea of brake lights.

Later, down our surprisingly quiet road, we came upon the next interstate exit. Traffic was stopped, emergency vehicle lights lit the sky and portable spotlights illuminated the accident. “I’m so glad we’re not sitting in that,” one of my children chirped from behind.

“Amen,” I answered.

Why had so many drivers chosen to be blind and ignore the signs? Why didn’t more listen? What were the frustrated drivers thinking as they sat in their overheating vehicles waiting for the accident to clear? Did they wonder why they’d ignored such deliberate warnings?

There are risks in choosing to be blind and ignoring life’s warning systems. But it’s an easy mistake to make because it’s often the easier choice, particularly when so many around us are ignoring the signs, too.

Sometimes life’s signs might not appear on pieces of metal on the side of the road. But they’re always there, aren’t they? We simply need to keep our eyes wide open and respond accordingly.

My wife and I later learned that there were no serious injuries in the accident, for which we were very relieved.

My children learned something, too. “Dad, we’re not talking about the accident anymore, are we?”

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