A Story of a Sleepy Driver

I had woken up rather early that day, to set out on the four-hour leg to a place I had never been, a bungee jump location on the Quebec side of the Quebec-Ontario border. Never been there, nor had I ever bungee jumped. So, the whole experience was going to be new. They say you don’t grow as a person until he go outside your comfort zone. I was going outside my comfort zone in more ways than one.  I don’t care for traveling, and I certainly don’t like falling from great heights only to be saved at the last moment. I was anxious for hours. Probably days. Still, it was a something I felt I should do, a bucket list item if you will. A bucket list item I felt I could do. Sleeping with Jeri Ryan was out of reach. Unfortunately, the closest place to do this kind of thing was four hours out of town. It was going to be a long day.

I felt fine when I got there, to this bungee jump operation 250 miles away from home. It is a large limestone quarry that is now filled with water and a construction crane looms high over it, assembled there to provide the platform off which customers are to throw themselves.  (I labor hard not to end a sentence in a preposition) I signed the waiver in the little plywood box they call an office, paid my $100, looked up at my steel nemesis, and watched other lemmings go first. Full of nervous energy, and not getting any less nervous by waiting, I climbed the stairs to the departure platform 200 feet above the water below. The view was great and I would have appreciated its beauty if not for the fact that I was there very much despite the view, not because of it.

I made my way to the gated departure plank where a bearded hipster kid fitted me to my harness. Adrenaline junkies work at these places because they get free jumps. And almost all have the same look. Google pics of rock climbers, skydivers, base jumpers, all 20-something young men, their faces have a hard, driven, unsympathetic look, the very personification of the idea of living life on the edge – except not in a Tony Montana kind of way. In the way a hobo would do it – unshaven, tattooed, and riding a freight train to parts unknown. And this young man was no different.

When I was hooked in, I got to the edge and looked down at the water 20 stories below. This was not going to work. I could have been high on bath salts at that point, and it would not have taken the edge off – of going off the edge. Every cell of your body tells you not to do it. Only your higher brain thinks this is a good idea. And your higher brain has funny ideas.

So, I turned around. No, I did not flee. I just faced backwards. If I was going to fall 20 stories, my eyes don’t need to know about it beforehand.  They’ll catch up. In fact, I didn’t want to know about it beforehand either. The hipster grabbed me by the harness, I leaned back. And I would fall when he let go. It was his call to say when. There was still time to back out, I thought. But this kid has probably heard “No!” only a few times in his life, and since he was kind enough to hook me in, who was I tell him something even his own parents didn’t tell him. I was not a jumper now. I was a faller. Still, good enough for me. This arrangement – and gravity – relieved me of a burdensome decision.

He let go of me. I was in freefall. Three and a half seconds worth. Two hundred and fifty miles I drove to spend $100 for 3.5 seconds. That’s the higher brain at work. While even a coke addict would be hard pressed to snort $100 in 3.5 seconds, you do get a 160-ft. rebound for your money – something the coke addict doesn’t get. So, there is that.

So why am I recounting all this? Because I don’t drink and drive. Only assholes do that. Criminal assholes. People who operate a motor vehicle in a reduced state of awareness are outlaws because they willingly put us all at risk. The funny thing is, while I did not realize it, I was now going to be among them. I was physiologically drained. I don’t do this bungee thing for a living. I was exhausted. All that nervous energy takes its toll – but insidiously the adrenalin hides the effect. And until the adrenaline subsides, the effect will remain hidden. But it would soon start to show up – on the way home.

And home was four hours away.

On the drive back, day soon turned into night. And the road became just an endless series of hypnotic yellow lines that the comfortable rental car I was riding was sucking up in the order in which they appeared.  The low frequency hum of the car’s motor, or the whispering of the air flowing past the windshield, doesn’t help in keeping you awake, either. Long drives on dark roads in comfortably heated cars are a visual and audible dynamic perfected to put one to sleep.

Half way home, in the dark, I started to find it hard to keep my eyes open. But as I had done many times before, I figured I could just fight it, maybe roll down the window, shake my head, anything but stop and pull over. I wanted to get home and sleep there, not on the side of a road. So, I continued. Yet my eyelids got heavier. I found myself drifting off for a second or two at a time. I would regain consciousness, and not think anything of it. Then I would nod off again for a second. And again. And again. Still, the idea of pulling over was not entertained. I just figured this sleepiness was only temporary. I had always gotten home before.

Then, strangely, there was a loud scraping noise. I didn’t see what happened. I guess I must have been sleeping. Imagine that. To my alarm, the right side of my car was rubbing up against the guardrail on a gentle left curve. My adrenaline was back now. Which was a welcome respite from my nodding off.  I stopped the car and got out. I had done a real nice job on the passenger side of this new car. What would I tell the rental company? Ah, who cares, that is what insurance is for. But wait a minute. Would insurance cover it if I told them I fell asleep at the wheel? This is thousands in damage at a body shop. Yeah, better tell them something else. I swerved to avoid a sasquatch crossing the road. That bastard. They can’t blame me for that. If I told them I swerved to avoid a raccoon, they might question my priorities.

I was now wide awake with adrenaline and the rest of the journey home was bright-eyed. But as I resigned myself to what I had just done, the magnitude had not hit me yet. I had only realized later that I had fallen asleep just as road was curving left. So, the guardrail was my fate. But what if I had fallen asleep when the road was straight? What would have woken me up then? Or worse, what if I had fallen asleep as the road was curving right? The answer is obvious.

What is not obvious is why a guy, who would never drive drunk for the risk it entails, would then drive in that condition? I made the decision to drive sleepy. I knew I was sleepy. I was fighting it for about 45 minutes before the accident. So, my moral culpability was clear. I was not only as dangerous as any drunk driver, but I was just as morally wrong for choosing to be behind the wheel. In fact, one could argue I was more morally culpable, considering that unlike the drunk driver, my reasoning was not impaired by an intoxicant. My choice to risk everyone’s safety was a sober one.

Yet, there is no Mother’s Against Sleepy drivers.

And why not?

In the US, about 10,000 people die in car accidents each year in which alcohol is considered the prime factor. There is a test for alcohol. Pretty hard to hide. Yet, the stats show that at least 5000 people die in car accidents each year that are directly attributable to sleeping driving. That is what the police reports show. Perhaps the drivers admit it. If they survive. But how many thousands more die in accidents in which the driver nodded off but, for obvious reasons, that fact was never known? It has been long suspected that fatigued driving actually kills as many or more people every year than drunk driving does. The problem is well known in the long-haul trucking industry.

But you wouldn’t know it.

Because there is no Mother’s Against Sleepy Drivers. No police spot checks for fatigue. No Breathalyzer tests for see if you have been nodding off.

This youtube video shows a fatal accident caught on tape. The driver, who survived, drove his car into the back of a motorhome on the side of the road. The tragedy was that his wife, who was in the passenger seat, was killed.  How do we know the elderly driver fell asleep? We don’t know – for a fact. The investigation found no reason for the accident. He was not drunk. No charges were laid. It was written off as inattentive driving.

Sleepy drivers are just as dangerous, just as ethically culpable, and kill themselves and others on the same scale as drunk drivers. Yet where is the social taboo of sleep driving? If the reason why we have made drunk driving such a moral crime – and a legal one – because we are outraged at the damage drunk drivers cause, then why not the same outrage at the 5000 killed by sleepy drivers?  Why does society moralize against drunk driving – and righteously so – and yet sleepy driving is nowhere on the virtue signalling radar? How come nobody takes your keys away as get up to leave with a yawn and a sleepy gaze?

That is the answer to why I continued to drive long after I knew I was in no condition to drive. There was no stigma attached to it. But why not?

The answer takes us back 200 years. The temperance movements goes all the way back to the early 1800s, and it was less than a 100 years ago that alcohol was banned in the US outright. And it was banned because enough people saw it as being a sin. From the early 19th century til the end of prohibition, there was a constant political and social movement to ban alcohol not so much because of what it does, or is reported to do in a real way, but because of what it is – a vector of disinhibition, a direct cause of behavior we still, even in the 21st century, hold in low regard.

So, drinking is, regardless of what we tell ourselves, still considered a moral failing. We don’t ban it anymore, but alcohol still has a stigma attached to it. We still consider it a vice. And drinking to the point of intoxication, even if that point is a measly .08, is considered a sign of poor character. So, any damage you cause as a result of such a poor character beholden to such a vice, is looked upon as morally repugnant. In short, it’s bad enough that you drink, and worse still that you are intoxicated, but it is unforgivable that you hurt others as a result. So drunk driving became, in the late ‘70s, a cultural taboo. It had been illegal for a long time before that. But it was never a taboo. Kind of like in the way that child molestation has been going on since the beginning of time, but only now do we address it as a social ill. (At least in the West.)

And so drunk driving was made socially unacceptable. It was not only illegal and dangerous, like speeding was, but unlike speeding, the reason why you are doing it is because you are a reprobate. Speed kills, but speeders are merely enthusiastic. Drunk drivers are, by virtue of being drunk in the first place, already bums before the key goes into the ignition. So, when their car goes off the road into a ditch, waving our finger at them is only natural.

Sleeping, well, sleeping is different. Sleeping is something we all do.  And if you are sleepy while driving, it is probably because you are working too hard, or too long. To society, that is a virtue, not a vice. So, when your car goes off the road into a ditch because you made the decision to drive while sleepy, well, people want to know if you are okay. To society, you have committed no crime. You’re a hard worker, not a lush. In fact, you are a victim of a brain that turned off without permission. They have sympathy. Not derision. Google the term sleepy driver, and many of the image hits are cartoons or funny images. Sleeping and driving? Try playing trivia – says the government road sign.

Like son, like father – to reverse the old adage. My own dad did exactly what I did. He was working all night downtown, and when he was finished, he got into his truck in the morning and went home. Unfortunately, his brain also turned off without permission and he too went into a guardrail. The police came. The ambulance came to check him out. He was mostly uninjured. No charges were laid. I don’t know what my father told the cops to explain why he went into the guardrail, but they didn’t seem to care.  He confided to his wife, his wife confided to my sister, and my sister confided to me. That is how I know he fell asleep.

I don’t know if sleepy driving is a crime, but if it is, there is no breathalyser test for it. And no social outcry to make one. In fact, the irony is they gave my father a breathalyzer test to determine if the accident was the result of a morally culpable decision on his part. It came back clean because my father does not drink. And that was good enough to exonerate him from any idea he did anything wrong. If only they knew.  And if they did know, if only they cared.

But either because we can’t test for sleepy drivers, or because we don’t really want to, society has decided to not make too big of a deal of it. We have all decided to look the other way. Sure, they will tell you to pull over and have a nap. Good thinking. Thanks for the advice, officer.

And sure, that is what I should have done. Decide to pull over and take a nap. But I choose not to. I made the decision to operate a motor vehicle in a severely reduced state of capability which could have resulted in the deaths of others. I was a drunk driver for all intents and purposes. And I knew it. I knew it all the way to that guardrail. Yet neither I, nor my society, had any moral proscription against it.

It was sobering to realize I was no better than a drunk. I became what I had loathed. I was the drunk driver. What were the odds that when I woke up that morning, I would fall so far – twice in one day.



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The 1989 Romanian Revolution. A personal account.

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