Every city, town and neighborhood that dots the American landscape has its share of rumors, myths and legends. Most of the time, the stories turn out to be completely unfounded, or they have morphed so perversely from the initial truth that spawned them that they are unworthy of contemplation.

On the Northwest Side of Chicago, one legend proved worthy of its hype: the film Death on the Highway, which you began hearing about if you lived in my neighborhood when you were in grade school. One of a series of documentaries produced in the 1950s, '60s and '70s on highway fatalities that were a staple of driver's education curricula at high schools nationwide — including mine — this film sought to teach the value of safe driving techniques by scaring the living bejeezus out of you.

And it succeeded. Death on the Highway was so graphic — using real-life footage to drive home its point like a jackhammer — that I am convinced it would have garnered an NC-17 rating if the current movie ratings system had been in place back then. More than three decades later, I still can remember certain parts of the film as vividly as if I had seen it just yesterday.

But the film pales in comparison to real life. Last year, while returning to Chicago on the Indiana Toll Road after a day trip, my traveling companion and I happened upon a horrific accident that had happened only moments before. One semi-tractor trailer had rear-ended another that was stopped in a construction zone. Both trucks were ablaze. The heat was so intense that the tires on both trucks were exploding. One tire that exploded rolled, fully ablaze, right for our vehicle, causing us to take evasive action.

We surmised, correctly as it turned out, that the driver of the truck who collided with the stopped 18-wheeler perished in the accident. But what we didn't find out until the next day was that a minivan carrying a mother, grandmother and two small children had been crushed between the two trucks, killing all of the occupants. If there's any solace to be had, the force of the collision was such that it is certain none knew what hit them. It was a chilling experience on several levels, including our realization that we had traveled that very same patch of concrete just hours earlier.

Which is why I read with even more interest than usual contributing writer Lynnette Luna's article on page 18 about emerging wireless technologies designed to make highway travel safer by alerting drivers well in advance of potentially dangerous road and traffic conditions.

It's welcome news. I've seen death on a highway — and give it two thumbs down.