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15 seconds: A rude awakening

Airmen and their families hit the road every summer to travel and enjoy a little relaxation. When making travel arrangements that involve driving long distances, be sure to get enough rest the night before and take breaks as needed. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter)

Airmen and their families hit the road every summer to travel and enjoy a little relaxation. When making travel arrangements that involve driving long distances, be sure to get enough rest the night before and take breaks as needed. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Staff Sgt. Jamal D. Sutter)

LITTLE ROCK AIR FORCE BASE, Ark. (AFNS) -- Gut-wrenching screams, the shattering of glass, and the unforgettable sounds of metal twisting and bending all around me as my truck rolls over and over again.

I thought those were going to be my last memories.

April 12, 2012, started out like any other Thursday for me. I woke up early enough to take a quick shower and grab some breakfast before heading out the door for work. I was working a double that day, so I made sure to grab a coffee.

It was a 45-minute drive to work, which gave me time to finish my cup a joe and relax before I spent the rest of the day on my feet.

Halfway through my shift, I received a call from my girlfriend, who was elated to find out that her classes on Friday had been canceled, and she would have a three-day weekend.

Any other time I would have told her I was on my way and then instantly jump into my vehicle and make the three-and-a-half-hour trek to Ball State University to bring her home. Instead, I decided to tell her I had to work, and that I wouldn't be able to make it until Friday night. I was lying. I wanted to surprise her.

After finishing up my shift, I made the 45-minute drive back to my house and got myself ready to make the long drive to Muncie, Indiana. I asked my sister if she'd like to join me to surprise Nicole and we hopped into the truck and were on our way.

I remember not feeling as tired as I had thought I was going to be, especially after working a 16-hour shift. In hindsight, I'm sure I was just too eager to surprise Nicole and unable to perceive the actual feelings of drowsiness and lethargy that were slowly creeping over me.

After surprising Nicole, we helped her pack her things and loaded them into the truck.

We hit the road around midnight. We talked and laughed most of the way home, but it was late. Before too long, my sister had fallen asleep in the back and Nicole had laid her head on my shoulder and dozed off as well.

After 30 minutes of driving without someone to keep me company, the fatigue of 16 hours of work and more than seven hours spent on the road started to settle in.

With the heat blowing full blast to keep the frigid weather at bay, no music and no one to talk to, my eyes started to grow heavy and my concentration slowly deteriorated.

My head started to bob and my eyes shut as we started to cross over the shoulder of the road. I quickly awoke by feeling the roughness of the shoulder and pulled the truck back onto the road. I looked over at my sister and Nicole to see if they had woken up during our little detour, but they hadn't moved an inch.

Little did they know the worst was yet to come.

That sluggish, drowsy feeling quickly returned. As we crossed the county line I remember saying, ‘We'll be home in 10 minutes guys.’ I was so tired I don't remember if I actually said it or just thought I said it.

After more than seven hours of driving I started to develop throttle foot, so I put the cruise control on. I remember stretching and thinking about lying down in bed and sleeping for hours on end. The thought had gotten the best of me, and I got my wish.

I was asleep.

Flying down Highway 10, with the cruise control set to 60 mph, my 2008 Ford Ranger started to creep across the centerline carrying myself and my two passengers to an unknown fate. We were now completely in the other lane of oncoming traffic, but the Ranger still continued to pull left taking us off the shoulder and onto the bank of a 10-foot ditch. With the Ranger almost riding completely on the left two tires, I woke up. As I regained consciousness I remember staring at a telephone poll about 15 yards from us. I gripped the wheel and ripped it to the right. We immediately turned up the ditch, still traveling at 60 mph, and the truck began rolling onto the driver side of the vehicle.

Nicole and my sister were abruptly awakened by the sound of breaking glass, the deployment of the airbags, and the positive and negative G-forces as the truck slammed into the ground. We were rolling over and over again, only stopped by a tree 40 yards from where we had originally started rolling.

The accident lasted about 15 seconds, which seemed like hours.

We came to a complete stop upside down with the driver's side pinned against the tree. I released my seatbelt and slammed against the roof of the vehicle.

After a verbal check to see if everyone was alright, I began kicking out the front windshield and helped Nicole and my sister out of the vehicle.

Once out of the Ranger, we ran up to the road and flagged down the next vehicle we saw to call 911.

We were lucky. Nicole, my sister and I all walked away from this horrific accident with only minor injuries.

According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2005 "Sleep in America" poll, 60 percent of adult drivers, about 168 million people, say they have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year. More than one-third, 37 percent or 103 million people, have actually fallen asleep at the wheel. In fact, of those who have nodded off, 13 percent say they have done so at least once a month. Four percent, approximately 11 million drivers, admit they have had an accident or near accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive.

The foundation also lists some helpful tips to fight and prevent fatigue while driving:

• Sleep -- Get at least eight hours of sleep prior to a long drive.

• Sit up straight -- Slouching down in a seat can promote sleepiness.

• Take a break -- For every two or three hours of driving, try to pull over and get at least 20 minutes of rest or even take a nap if you can.

• Avoid heavy meals -- Larger meals tend to make us feel lethargic. If you have to eat try and keep it light when driving long distances.

• Caffeine -- One to two cups of coffee is actually good for you and a better alternative than carbonated beverages such as pop and energy drinks. But do not rely on it to keep you awake.

Hopefully these tips help avoid accidents that often result from driver fatigue. An alert driver is a safe driver. Remember to practice safety. Don't learn it by accident.

Engage

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