A Personal Note: Mysterious Accident

I had a serious accident on July 19, 2017 at about 6:30 AM in the morning making a left turn from the off ramp of Central Expressway East onto North Wolfe Road in Sunnyvale, California.  Fortunately no one was seriously injured but I could easily have been killed and my car was totaled.  I have some whiplash and may have had a very mild concussion.

The accident is something of a mystery.  I distinctly remember stopping at the red light at the off ramp from Central Expressway and Wolfe Road.  Then the light turned green and I made a left turn across the three lanes of South Wolfe Road.  I make this turn almost every morning.  I was awake, alert.  I was not texting or doing anything reckless.  I am generally a cautious driver; people have complained about it.

I had a glancing collision with an SUV coming down North Wolfe that should have had a red light but seemingly did not.  The lights from both directions are extremely obvious at this intersection.  I was extremely surprised both by the SUV and to see the light that should have stopped the SUV was green when I pulled over.  I don’t think the SUV ran a red light although it is hard to be absolutely certain.

Three Unlikely Explanations

I seem to be left with three unlikely explanations.  Despite my distinct memory and natural caution, I somehow made a left turn against multiple bright red lights directly in front of me and in my field of view.

Accident Left Turn View (Aug. 18, 2017)
Accident Left Turn View (Aug. 18, 2017)

(OR) The lights changed improperly giving both the other driver and myself green lights at the same time due to an electrical or electronic failure.

Lights on Wolfe Should Have Stopped Other Driver
Lights on Wolfe Should Have Stopped Other Driver

(OR) The lights changed improperly giving both the other driver and myself green lights at the same time because someone tampered with the lights somehow, presumably either a dangerous prank or attempted homicide.

None of these possibilities seems particularly probable, but it seems that the explanation for the accident must be one of them.

Mental glitches of this type may happen but must be very rare.  I was wide awake, alert, have made the turn many times and am familiar with the intersection.  I am a cautious driver.  The red lights should have been easily and clearly visible.  I was in good health with no noticeable cognitive issues in the last several years.  I remember seeing the red lights and  the light changing green and very distinctly no red lights as I made the left turn.

There is a lot of construction at and near the intersection of Wolfe Road and Central Expressway in Sunnyvale that seems associated with an office building under construction in the block bordered by Wolfe, Central, Arques, and Commercial Street.  The new office building faces Wolfe and Arques.

Building Construction at Corner of Arques and Wolfe (Aug. 18, 2017)
Building Construction at Corner of Arques and Wolfe (Aug. 18, 2017)

There is a lot of work going on right at the intersection of Central Expressway, technically the on/off ramps, and Wolfe Road.

Workmen Doing Something at Central Expressway Off Ramp and Wolfe (Aug. 18, 2017)
Workmen Doing Something at Central Expressway Off Ramp and Wolfe (Aug. 18, 2017)

There were a lot of signs for construction in and around the intersection between Wolfe and the Central Expressway on/off ramps when the accident occurred although I did not see any workmen (it was about 6:30 AM and there do not seem to have been any witnesses).

The question arises whether the construction could have caused a glitch in the lights.  To be sure, the lights could have some very rare, bizarre failure mode not due to the construction as well but surely this is less likely than a problem related to the construction.

Then, finally, there is the possibility of deliberate tampering with the traffic lights.  This could just be some random, extremely dangerous “prank” or an attempt to kill, harm, or frighten either the other driver or myself (I did not and do not know the other driver).  It is a bit concerning coming twelve days after my personal storage locker was broken into (July 7, 2017).

It is difficult to know what to make of deliberate tampering with the traffic lights.  Many years ago I worked briefly for a company that shall remain nameless where I developed very serious concerns about the company and the people connected to it after I took the job.  I didn’t hang around.  They would be my leading suspects if there was tampering but it has been a long time.  They would be risking the spotlight of unwanted public attention if they tried to kill me.

I am left with a mystery.  None of the three explanations — a serious mental glitch on my part, an improbable electronic failure of the traffic lights, or deliberate tampering with the traffic lights by a person or persons unknown — seems likely, but presumably one of them happened.  Previous accidents that I have had have been minor and it was always clear what had happened.  🙁

(C) 2017 John F. McGowan, Ph.D.

About the author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).


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