CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 PAUL LOCKHART
A Company, 2-228 Aviation Regiment
Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania
Looking back, there have been a few occasions where I nearly made it into the statistic column. There is one, however, that really stands out in my mind. It forever ended my perception that I was invincible.
I was a rookie reservist, a private first class in a transportation (heavy boat) unit, based in my coastal hometown of Morehead City, North Carolina. We were such a hodge-podge unit. Our boats (Landing Craft-Utility) were left over from the World War II era — hand-me-downs from the Navy. Nearly all our field manuals and technical manuals were copied from the U.S. Coast Guard. To top it off, our training area was on a Marine Corps base. What a mess.
One drill, we were scheduled to qualify with our M-16s at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. We were provided maps the Friday night before the drill weekend, as most of us would drive our own vehicles to the range. That would allow us to leave right after we qualified, helping shorten an inevitably long duty day. With a little luck, I could make it from home to the range in about an hour and 15 minutes.
I pulled out about 5 a.m. that Saturday morning and got to the range without a hitch. I didn’t have any breakfast because nothing was open. I would regret that decision later.
I reported to the range as ordered. After firing 40 rounds, several of us were released with instructions for the next day’s drill. So, I turned in my personal battle cannon and jumped back into my truck. Everything had gone fine so far. I’d found my way to the range, showed a paper target who was boss and headed home for some grub. That is, I thought I was headed home.
It was about half-past noon and I’d been awake since 4 a.m. As I headed north on the highway, I thought, “Man — why do my eyelids feel like they weigh 100 pounds?” The hum of the engine and the buzz of the tires on the road were almost hypnotic. I was drifting gently into never-never land when, suddenly, I was jolted back into reality.
“BAM — BAM — BOUNCE — BANG — BA-BOOM — BA-BOOM — SMACK!
My eyelids shot wide open. My normal day suddenly turned ugly! It’s difficult to convey in words how violently shaken in mind and body I’d become in less than five seconds. I was halfway off the road in a pickup bouncing up and down. Had I awakened one second later, I would have launched at 60 mph down a wet, grassy slope into a stand of trees.
As I tried to maintain control, I remembered being told, “Don’t jerk the wheel,” in my high school drivers’ education class. I was careful not to force my truck back onto the pavement too quickly for fear of catching the front tire on the edge and flipping. While I was being bounced and tossed around, I steered gently to the left to get back on the highway. Fortunately, I made it.
This incident occurred just 15 minutes after I’d left the range. That’s significant because when your adrenaline fades after doing something, it’s easy to become groggy, complacent and even incoherent. On the upside, I’d maintained my vehicle. The fluid levels were good and my tires had good tread. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I took care of my ride. If I hadn’t, something else — perhaps a blown tire — could have led to a tragedy. I believe my life was spared that day for various reasons. Maybe one was to share my experience with others.
So, what dangerous ingredients went into the mix for my near disaster that day? How about poor diet (no breakfast), fatigue and complacency. It doesn’t take all that many things going wrong to get yourself hurt or killed. Had I taken the time to identify and assess these hazards — the first two steps of risk management — I could have reduced my risks. I was complacent that day. I’d forgotten that the difference between life and death can be as short as one tick of the second hand.
The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that more than one-third of drivers surveyed admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel. Perhaps even more startling was that 60 percent of those drivers admitted to falling asleep on highways with a posted speed limit of 55 mph or higher. These drowsy drivers not only put themselves at risk, but other motorists around them. Here are some tips from the NSC to keep you awake and alive:
Recognize the symptoms of fatigue
- Eyes closed or going out of focus
- Persistent yawning
- Irritability, restlessness and impatience
- Wandering or disconnected thoughts
- Inability to remember driving the last few miles
- Drifting between lanes or onto the shoulder
- Abnormal speed, tailgating or failure to obey traffic signs
- Back tension, burning eyes, shallow breathing or inattentiveness
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule that allows adequate rest.
- When you show signs of fatigue, get off the road and take a short nap in a well-lit area. Don’t simply stop on the side of the road.
- Avoid driving between midnight and 6 a.m.
When planning long trips
- Begin your trip early in the day.
- Keep the temperature cool in your car.
- Stop every 100 miles or two hours to get out of the car and walk around. Exercise helps combat fatigue.
- Stop for light meals and snacks.
- Drive with your head up, shoulders back and legs flexed at about a 45 degree angle.
For additional information about fatigued driving, visit the NSC website at https://www.nsc.org/road/safety-topics/fatigued-driver.