Fog, smoke and dust are the Rodney Dangerfields of dangerous weather phenomena. Drivers don't give them a lot of respect.
Dangerfield was the comedian who drew laughs for his "I don't get no respect" shticks. But it's no joking matter for travelers making their way through the vision-obscuring hazards.
Fog, smoke and dust storms are responsible for about 100 fatal crashes a year and are contributing factors in as many as 700 nationwide annually, said Walker Ashley, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University and lead author of "Driving Blind," a study that looked at 16 years of weather-related crash data, published in May's Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
"It's not visceral like a tornado. Think of weather hazards, and everybody thinks of a tornado or a hurricane, or maybe lightning or flooding. They don't think of fog as a hazard," he said. "We have the thought that fog is one of those things you deal with.
"Would anybody put on a blindfold and go drive? I don't think so. That is the kind of situation we can find ourselves in. When driving down the freeway at 55 or 75 miles per hour, it can become a substantial hazard."
Ashley calls fog, smoke and dust "subtle" hazards because they don't occur as frequently as other hazards such as rain or snow. But when fog (or smoke or dust) rolls in, visibility can drop in a hurry and sometimes with headline-making results.
That was the case on Jan. 29, 2012, when a plume of smoke drifted over I-75 in north-central Florida and caused a series of collisions resulting in 11 deaths, 20 injuries and 25 mangled vehicles. Also in 2012, thick fog triggered a series of chain-reaction crashes on I-10 near Beaumont, Texas. Blowing dust in Arizona led to crashes that left three people dead, a dozen injured and damaged more than 20 vehicles.
Ashley combed through fatal crash data from 1994 through 2011 and found state highways were the most dangerous when vision is obscured, accounting for more than 33 percent of fatal crashes. County roads were the second-most dangerous, while only 14 percent of fatal wrecks occurred on interstate highways.
"Reaction times are shorter when vision is obscured," Ashley said. "That can lead to a chain-reaction because drivers coming upon it can't see it. When you find yourself in those situations, it might be safer to call it a night or day, and pull off the road, or at a minimum slow down."
In foggy conditions, motorists might assume it's safe to drive with flashers on, but it's not a practice endorsed by Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the Minnesota State Patrol. "Drivers may attempt to pass vehicles with flashers illuminated, as they may assume they were disabled in some way," she said. "I am not certain that flashers would give additional visibility."
But it is not illegal to do it, she added.
Jamie Korf of AAA Minneapolis said drivers should use low-beam headlights in fog. High beams will impair visibility as the light reflects off the fog and back at your vehicle. Drivers should wipe down windows, mirrors and headlights; keeping them clean can cut down on glare and increase visibility. In smoky conditions, keep the windows rolled up and the AC on recirculation mode to keep bad air outside, she said.