I could hardly believe my eyes as I approached the intersection of Keyes and Hickman roads on the morning of Sept. 14, 1984. The carnage of the aftermath of a grinding crash in the path of my 1974 Camaro was less than five minutes old. It looked as though a bomb blew over a tractor-trailer rig with a set of axles in the road, a set of trailers blocking the southbound lane and a load of grapes scattered about the scene.
The dead and seriously wounded were ejected into a field at the southwest corner of the intersection.
Thankfully others got to the fatal crash before I did because I was not sure what to do at the age of 23. Carlos Mello, 44, of Ceres, lay dead in the field, his head covered in blood. The driver of the big-rig, Truman Traphagen, 46, of Modesto, was wounded but talking.
The California Highway Patrol determined that the crash was the fault of Paul Ackerman of Ceres, who ran a stop sign as he drove westbound on Keyes Road. The impact mangled both vehicles and left his passenger dead.
I drove away, completely shaken by what I had seen and a newfound respect for the power of machinery when handled carelessly.
I'm unsure why Mr. Ackerman failed to stop at the stop sign that morning. He may have been talking to his passenger and mindlessly failed to see the stop sign. The house on the corner probably blocked him from seeing the approaching big-rig but his error impacted many lives that day, including the relatives and friends of his dead passenger.
As an editor, I have covered countless stories of fatal crashes that have occurred as the result of someone failing to stop at a stop sign or someone who blew through a red light.
It doesn't surprise me that in this "me first" generation that drivers will push the limits to squeeze past a yellow light and even blow a red light or a stop sign. But some startling information came to light recently with the release of the report, "Safer Roads Report 2012: Trends in Red-Light Running" by the National Coalition for a Safer Roads. The report examines red light running trends in 18 states and found that more than 2.3 million drivers ran a red light in 2011. The report analyzed red-light running data collected from 1,240 red-light safety cameras across 142 areas in 18 states.
Not surprisingly the report indicated that the greatest impatience with red lights occurs on Fridays. And drivers most frequently ran red lights in the afternoon, with 30.7 percent occurring from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Nationally, about 90,000 injuries and 1,000 deaths occur from red light running.
David Kelly, president and executive director of NCSR, stated that his report "shines a light on the life-threatening epidemic of red-light running on our nation's roads."
Why an epidemic? I suppose it's a number of factors actually.
Driving a car can become so routine and monotonous that we fail to consider that we are driving 2,000-pound missiles that can destroy lives and property in careless split seconds.
We live in a society that is more populated and so busy that it doesn't have time to wait at a red light if we can avert one. And with cutbacks in police officers on patrol everywhere, you have a better chance of getting away with it, sorry to say.
Or perhaps as time goes on we see more and more red lights pop up that we have contempt for them. They're a delay and a nuisance - but a necessary one if there is to be order on our roads. We live in a society of texters who have no time for face-to-face conversation let alone voice communication, correct spelling, commas, common courtesy in lines and waiting long for our fast food in the drive-thru lane, so why would red lights be any different?
But could this problem be rooted in something more deeply disturbing? I'm talking about the entitlement mentality. The "my time is more important than yours mentality."
Let's face it. We are surrounded by people trained since enactment of LBJ's Great Society to think they have a rights to things which they have no right to.
The entitlement mindset is everywhere.
"I have a right to enough money to live on even though I may not even work."
"I am entitled to drive a car although my license was revoked and I have no insurance."
"I have a right to be in the U.S. even though I snuck across the border."
"As an employee of this burger joint, I am entitled to give free food to myself and my family. The company won't miss it."
"Yes, we should tax rich people more because they have too much money and us little people need it."
"I'm entitled to sue this business for slipping and falling even though I was behaving stupidly when I did it."
"Let's sue mom for $50,000 for bad mothering because she didn't send us care packages at college, and refused to buy me a homecoming dress and didn't send money in a birthday card to the son." (Yes, sadly a true case that was tossed out of court).
Or what about the couple who stole a big screen TV from the Ceres Walmart and then pushed the elderly security man aside when he asked to see their receipt? Do you think that was an entitlement mentality at work?
I could go on and on about kids who expect parents to clean up their messes, or people who put up garage sale signs and don't remove them or women who feel they are entitled to have taxpayers buy their contraceptives even though their sexual habits are their own.
But enough already. My point should be obvious. When will we start individually doing our part - diligently and not half-hearted - and to say I am responsible for myself and will play by the rules for the greater good of all? That means not blowing through a red light or a questionable yellow light for that matter.
The rest of us depend on it.