Driving With Your Eyes Wide Shut

  • Published
  • By Col Sharon Hunter
  • 97th Medical Group Commander
My husband and I are stationed at different bases, so we take every opportunity we can to visit each other. He was going to make the trip on a recent weekend so we could celebrate his birthday together. Unfortunately, he couldn't make the trip but since it was his birthday, I decided to make the drive to see him. It's a seven hour drive, so I make it a long weekend when I can. I typically leave Friday evening and for safety reasons drive about half way and finish the trip Saturday morning. So it was this weekend; my leave was approved and I was cleared to take off a little early that Friday afternoon. I had reservations at a hotel along the way - as much as I wanted to get home to my family, I needed to make sure I exercised the same safety precautions I expect my Airmen to follow. Smug in the fact that I was setting a good example, I set off for the last half of my drive Saturday morning after a good night's rest.

On my way to San Antonio that Saturday morning, I met retired Sergeant Major Hayhurst in Burnet, Texas. He had retired from the Army after 27 years of service, "to get a less stressful job," he said. I thanked him for his service and he thanked me for mine. We exchanged these pleasantries as now-Officer Hayhurst of the Burnet Police Department was checking my driver's license and insurance. You see, he had pulled me over for speeding in a construction zone. He asked me if I knew it was a construction zone; even before I knew about the Air Force core value of integrity, my parents taught me honesty. There was no way I could tell him I hadn't seen the orange barrels lining the roadway. However, I was thinking to myself that no workers were present - isn't that when you have to be cautious? But I kept that to myself. I knew this was no time to make excuses. Officer Hayhurst asked me what I did for the Air Force, and I told him. He asked me if I was familiar with this particular highway and I told him I was. Of course I was - I traveled it every time I visited my husband, and for many years before that going TDY a few times a year between Lackland AFB and Sheppard AFB - I could travel that road with my eyes closed. Again, I kept that thought to myself and just told him yes, I was. He said, "Then you know that the most fatalities on this highway occur between here and the next 10 miles." Well, no, I didn't know that sobering fact. He politely and kindly told me to slow down, and to make sure to tell my "troops" to slow down. He let me off with a warning - a courtesy, I know, for a fellow Veteran.

As I slowly drove away, I thought about what had just happened and why. I'm old enough and I've sat through enough Fatality Briefings where commanders try to explain unexplainable tragedies time after time to know that I am not somehow invincible. Throughout the rest of my drive, I thought long and hard about how, as a commander, my greatest fear and what keeps me awake sometimes, is the fear of having to tell a parent or spouse that their loved one had been killed in a senseless accident. I struggled with the realization I had just put my family - and my boss - in that same potential situation. How could I have been so careless? Complacency and lack of attention; remember, I said I could make that drive with my eyes closed. And the closer I got to my family, the more excited and eager I was to be there. My focus had changed from the task at hand - of driving safely - to weekend family activities.

My temporary loss of situational awareness was a sobering reality check. What would have happened if Officer Hayhurst hadn't slowed me down? Maybe nothing, maybe another senseless tragedy; we'll never know. All I do know is complacency can happen to anyone if you're not careful. So please, with the holiday season fast approaching and as many of you begin travelling, be sure to plan your trip carefully and stay focused. Your loved ones will appreciate it.