Five farmworkers were killed early Tuesday morning as thick fog blanketed a thoroughfare used to reach fruit and nut farms in Stockton.
Visibility was practically zero when a van carrying seven farmworkers – all adult men -- was broadsided by a truck about 6:50 a.m. on California 4 just east of Stockton, said California Highway Patrol Officer James Smith.
The crash killed the driver and four of passengers. The remaining two passengers suffered major injuries.
The driver was the only person wearing a seat belt, authorities said.
Neither of the drivers involved in the crash had licenses, Smith said.
The bustling thoroughfare is often traveled by farmworkers heading to the area's tomato, grape and walnut fields.
Many workers in the area rely on a carpooling system called raitero to travel from the fields to their homes, said Blanca Bañuelos, regional director of advocacy at the California Rural Legal Assistance in Stockton.
Relying on coworkers for transportation, the workers pay a daily fee to get to the fields. The fee is typically about $10 per day, per worker.
The crash, she said, could have a rippling effect on the tight-knit farming community.
"A lot of farmworkers know each other," she said. "It's a tragedy."
Fearing the same tragedy could happen to them, Bañuelos said many workers may begin avoiding driving. CHP officials in the Central Valley have been working with farmworkers and employers to avoid similar crashes.
While the fog was a contributing factor in Tuesday's collision, it is unclear what ultimately caused it.
CHP Sgt. Jose Gutierrez, who runs the Safety and Farm Labor Vehicle Education program in the Central Valley, said he and fellow officers have been working since 2000 to educate drivers in the Central Valley about specific California laws protecting farmworkers on the road.
Before the program, hundreds of farmworkers from Kern to Stanislaus counties were killed or hurt traveling to and from the fields, he said.
From 1997 to 1999, there were 187 farm labor vehicle crashes, resulting in 20 deaths and 121 injuries.
No farm labor vehicle-involved fatalities have been reported in the Central Valley since 2000, he said.
The identities of the men have not been released.