Keep Your Head in the Game
CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 4 PAUL MADRID
1st Cavalry, 1st Armored Division
Have you ever driven home and couldn’t remember all the details of the trip? Statistics show most traffic accidents happen within 25 miles of home. Is this because we’re so used to our surroundings that we’ve become conditioned and assume nothing will ever change? Or are we satisfied nothing will ever be different and, as a result, become complacent? I was on a TDY trip when I learned how both factors can get you into trouble, even when you are hundreds of miles from home.
I was on a week-long TDY to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to inspect a National Guard drug interdiction program. It started off like all the other TDY trips I’d taken in the past — I packed, got the plane tickets and launched. Once there, I picked up my rental car and headed for the hotel.
After checking in, I decided to visit the unit, which was about 15 miles away. Along the drive was a 4-mile-long straight stretch of highway that went up a gradual slope. On the return trip, there were 11 red lights along the road, and another one by the overpass at the bottom of the slope. I’d driven the road enough during the first three days that it was becoming routine, and I wasn’t counting on things changing late at night.
So, what was different on that long stretch of highway after 10 p.m.? To make things easier late at night, those red lights changed to flashing yellow caution lights so you didn’t have to stop at every other traffic signal. This made sense to me. After making this trip for three days and nights, I was getting comfortable with this section of road — maybe a little too comfortable.
On the fourth night, things were going well for the unit. The only thing left to do was outbrief the command the next day, so a few of the National Guard guys decided to follow me back to the hotel for a small get-together. I was in the lead with three other cars behind me. No problem, right? Wrong!
As I started driving down the slope of the highway, I could see all those yellow caution lights flashing away. I cruised down the slope expecting yellow lights all the way, but as I went under the overpass, a Jeep Cherokee suddenly pulled out in front of me. My first thought was, “What is this guy doing?!” I was traveling 50 mph and he was only 20 yards in front of me. I didn’t have much time to react. My rental car became a knife and cleanly shaved the Jeep’s front end. I won’t go into all the details of the damage done to both vehicles. Let’s just say it was severe enough that they couldn’t be towed and had to be loaded onto slide-bed wreckers.
What happened? Remember all those red lights that changed to flashing yellow at 10 p.m.? Well, not all of them changed. The one that hadn’t was the one behind the overpass. As I came down the slope, I could see every light except that one.
This accident could have been catastrophic. I realized had I entered the intersection a second later I would have T-boned the Jeep. That surely would have killed its driver and done who knows what to me. Had I become complacent and unaware of the actual danger, or had I become conditioned and assumed the lights all did the same thing at the same time? Either way you look at it, the story is the same.
What’s the point of this? The combination of complacency and conditioning can lead you into a deadly trap. Whether you’re 25 miles from home or TDY 2,500 miles away, keep your head in the game all the time. Not doing so can get you killed.