Just a matter of seconds, that’s all it took, for me to open my eyes ….
… and, it turns out, avert a tragedy.
I saw the car in front of me, and for a second, it looked like that red car on Interstate 4 was moving in reverse, speeding right at me. I thought the driver had accidentally fallen asleep at the wheel and mistakenly shifted his car into reverse. And there it was, the back of his car, zooming right for my front hood.
I slammed on the brakes, and then within seconds … all was fine again. That red car started moving faster and faster away from me on the highway, as my own car slowed down. Several cars behind me shifted into the left and right hand lanes to zip around me, because suddenly I was moving too slowly for their taste.
And it hit me, then, that the motorist in front of me hadn’t fallen asleep at the wheel.
It wasn’t even late at night. It was about 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, the sun was still out, and I was confronting rush hour traffic to get from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs. Traffic was slow, but not the worst I’ve ever seen it. It was at least moving, if not very quickly.
But I was dead tired from a long, exhausting week. Sitting there in that bumper to bumper, move-then-stop kind of traffic, I allowed myself the luxury of leaning my head back against the seat, taking in a deep breath, and refusing to get annoyed by the road congestion. I ignored the traffic altogether, in fact, and started thinking about other things. Outside of feeling very worn out, I was upbeat, in a good mood. Suddenly the traffic started to pick up again, so I pressed on the gas pedal. And then, still lost in my thoughts, it happened…
For just a few seconds, I faded.
The only other time in my life that I can remember nodding off while driving was in 2002, when I moved from Massachusetts to Florida. Stuck in a UHaul truck with six cats — all of them, it seemed, much happier than I was — I had stopped for a quick nap, and then, figuring I was nice and refreshed, decided to make an all-out effort at driving throughout the night from the MidAtlantic into the Deep South. But after a few hours it caught up with me again, and, behind the wheel of that big UHaul, sleep beckoned — rudely, and constantly. My eyes struggled to stay open, and it was just like being on a couch, when you’re perfectly relaxed and comfy, and you really want to stay awake to see your favorite TV show and — suddenly you’re out. That’s how it was in that UHaul that night. So I gave up and pulled into a rest stop and slept some more. That helped.
This incident was different. I opened my eyes to see that I was moving fast, and heading right for the car in front of me that, well, wasn’t going quite as fast as me. It’s a good thing I’m not the tailgating type, because the car in front of me would have gotten very intimdately involved with mine if I had.
And the rest of the drive? Uneventful. A shocker like that has a good way of waking you up once and for all. I made it to the Altamonte Mall unscathed.
I thought about this afterwards in part because I kept thinking about Russell Hurd.
I met him on Jan. 3, during a ceremony in Davenport marking the official dedication of the Heather Hurd Memorial Highway along the stretch of U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County. Heather was his daughter, and in January 2008 she was driving on U.S. 27 near the Berry Town Center shopping plaza when she stopped at a traffic light. That move turned out to be the last few seconds in her life. What she didn’t know as she put her foot on the brakes and came to a stop is that the driver of a tractor-trailer right behind her, David Lunger, hadn’t noticed that the light had turned red. He slammed right into Heather’s car. She was killed at the scene in what turned into a multi-car pileup.
Lunger, who later pleaded no contest to a citation for careless driving and was fined $1,000 — and has since died of cancer — had been distracted by a cell phone text message.
As I stood there talking to Russell Hurd on that brisk January morning, he told me about how that tragedy had changed his life, and made him a tireless advocate for new laws that ban people from texting while driving. He serves on the board of directors for Focus Driven, a group promoting laws that prohibit sending texting messages while operating behind the wheel of a car. He hopes to model their efforts on the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in raising awareness about the dangers of drinking and then getting behind the wheel of a car.
But I also found Russell Hurd to be practical. He knows passing a law won’t eradicate this kind of behavior altogether. (Florida is now among the states without a ban on texting while driving.) As he noted, the law bans drinking and driving but some people still do it. The key, he said, is to change the mindset of a culture — a culture where more than a few people feel comfortable reading a text message or even drafting a text response while they’re driving. According to some statistics, that could be as much as 90 percent of the U.S. population.
There’s a lot of truth to what Russell Hurd says. It’s easy to view the problem as being isolated to people who are completely, totally irresponsible. They go to bars, drink too much, and then get behind the wheel of a car, intoxicated. They pay for that in the lives they claim when they smash into someone, and the prison term they face afterwards, if they even survive the crash.
But as Russell noted, the bigger problem is with those of us who think we’re being safe for precisely the opposite reason: we’re not intoxicated or under the influence of anything. We’re sober, maybe even buzzed from a fresh cup of coffee. We figure nobody could be better prepared to start driving safely.
I can’t say how many people I’ve seen talking on their cell phone while speeding down I-4 — or how many times I’ve done it, too.
I’ve also seen people texting behind the wheel while on I-4. I’ve read text messages while driving, but only sent out text messages while stopped at a red light. But just the same, I’ve joined that 90 percent of the public that figures, Hey, I can do this safely. I know what I’m doing.
Do we? What if we’re driving safely, but the people around us are not? Do we lower our guard just long enough to let them smash into us?
When I set out from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs on Friday, I felt fine. No reason to think I’d have problems behind the wheel. I was in a good mood, and while I was tired, it was Friday, after all. Who isn’t run down by the end of a long work week? And it was only 5 o’clock at night.
And as I opened my eyes to see the car in front of me zooming toward me, for a second I thought, oh, no, crazy driver …
I was wrong. That driver was doing fine.
The problem, I was forced to admit, was me.
Contact Mike Freeman about this column at FreelineOrlando@gmail.com.