‘Mr. Invincible’ and the holiday exodus

  • Published
  • By Edward “Leo” Timmons
  • Special Warfare Training Wing Director of Safety

As a young and “invincible” 19-year-old Airman one-striper, I experienced my first holiday exodus, that time of year when the base gets so quiet it seems even the crickets have left to celebrate Christmas.

I had just bought a brand new (to me) red “sled” -- a Chevy S-10 pickup truck with a V6 engine under the hood. Still at my first duty station of Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D., I became so excited to drive home to be with family (and show off my new ride) during the holidays that I caught a rather severe case of “get-there-itis.” I didn’t really have a plan, and I didn’t tell anyone about the trip because I wanted it to be a surprise.

So after a full day of work, I packed a bag, got in my pick-up truck and started my drive straight to Texas. I knew the route home would be an 18-hour-drive, but my alter ego, “Mr. Invincible,” thought he could make it without stopping.

Bad idea.

Roughly halfway into the ill-advised trip, I could barely hold my eyes open. To keep a steady flow of caffeine flowing through my veins, I pounded coffee and sodas like a dehydrated man who had been stranded in the desert. I drove with the windows down amid frigid winter temperatures to shock me into alertness. I even blasted the radio in a futile attempt to keep myself from falling asleep while driving (this doesn’t work by the way).

As all my desperate measures to remain awake failed me, I experienced microsleep for the first time in my life (or at least while driving). The term microsleep refers to very short periods of sleep that can be measured in seconds, rather than minutes or hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Basically, your brain flips rapidly between being asleep and being awake. Obviously, the preferred driving technique requires you to be fully awake.

I remember it was about 2 a.m. when I blinked at the horizon on a straight desolate road and saw headlights heading directly toward me. I thought maybe I was so tired I was hallucinating. But then the lights started getting closer and closer. I moved over to the right lane just in time to barely miss the drunk driver who was driving head-on into traffic and being chased by two police cars.

My life flashed before my eyes as I slammed on my brakes and pulled over to the side of the road. My heart pounded and I sweated profusely because I knew just how close I came to dying in a violent head-on collision. I drove to the next rest area and took a nap. To this day, I still do not know how I made it home without hurting myself or others. Looking back on this, I can’t believe how dumb I was for taking such a huge risk.

When it comes to the holidays, I am not the only one to have taken unnecessary risks. In a recent memorandum, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressed his concern for an increase in motor vehicle fatalities during the holidays. He advised, “Pay close attention to weather conditions, wear your seat belt, obey the speed limit, and do not drive if impaired or fatigued. Be responsible and look out for your colleagues, friends and family. Think through every plan and have a backup plan for contingencies.”

That’s great advice, which Mr. Invincible should have heeded.

I’m truly lucky to be alive today to share my missteps with you … and to enjoy another Christmas with family and friends. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday break and come back in January safe and sound!                                


Holiday Driving Safety Tips

  • Plan ahead, and allow plenty of travel time to help you avoid a case of “get-there-itis.”
  • Take your vehicle to a shop to get it checked out prior to your trip. Ensure your tires are properly inflated and have the appropriate tread depth.
  • Pay attention to weather updates along the route you will be traveling.
  • Excessive speed kills and will only shave a few minutes from your arrival time. A few minutes is not worth the risk. Slow down and get there safely.
  • Take a break every two hours or so. Don’t drive for more than eight hours straight without resting for the day/night.
  • If traveling to a different time zone, keep in mind your circadian rhythm will be off when you return. It takes about three days to get back into rhythm; so be very cautious during that time, and try to avoid high-risk activities.
  • Last but not least, don’t drink and drive!