“Americans take an average of four car trips every day—that’s more than 1,400 per year. It’s no wonder that the chance of dying while inside a moving vehicle is about 1 in 6,700. Car crashes are the leading cause of death in teenagers, and second leading cause of death in all other populations. Without a doubt, driving is risky business.” (Source: NTSB Safety Compass)
I have a problem. I’ve had this problem going on 17 years this year. It surfaced in the year 2000, while I was working as a delivery driver for a paper company in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the time, although the company had gone through two changes of ownership, I had gone to work there, at that same building, for ten years. Monday through Friday, from 6 AM until whenever I was done with my route. I got the job after coming off the road. I wanted a local job after two years of over-the-road driving. The company had straight trucks and tractor-trailers, and I drove both, depending upon which route I was on. I put in a lot of miles every day. Day after day, week after week, year after year. During one day, most people drive to work, drive home from work, and perhaps stop by the store along the way. I drove to work and then I spent all day driving. Then I drove home from work and stopped at the store along the way. That’s a lot of driving. More than the average person could imagine. I saw a lot when I was on the road every day. Lots of dangerous situations. Lots of wrecks. Lots of close calls. Lots of near misses. I saw people get hurt. I saw people get killed.
There was one particularly bad week, wherein seven people were killed on one short, dangerous stretch of interstate highway in Southwest Little Rock. I saw one of the wrecks after it happened. A car had crossed the median and gone underneath the front of a tractor-trailer that had been traveling the opposite direction. The firemen were trying to get the mangled bodies out of the car while it was underneath the truck and I thought they may as well get a crane to lift the truck and drag the car out with the bodies inside. But that’s not the way they do things. The next day I saw on the news it had been a woman and her little girl that had gone underneath the truck the day before.
Like I said, that was a bad week. I only saw the one wreck but I heard about the others. Some of them were partly caused by bad road design, which has since been fixed. But they were all due to human error regardless. I remember clocking in one morning that week while another driver was clocking in, too. He asked me if I had heard about one of the wrecks and I told him that I had. He said he had seen it and that it was really bad. He clocked in and walked away. I began to tear up, and I contemplated not clocking in. Not going to work. Not driving anymore. Ever. Because I just couldn’t take it anymore. The deaths. It was too much for me. I knew then and there I had a problem. I had been driving for many years by that time, and I always enjoyed doing so. Now I didn’t. I had reached my breaking point.
I did clock in that day. I went to work, like I always did. And I did my job. But after that day I was never the same. I would find myself tearing up again whenever I saw a wreck. Even when I saw dead animals on the road. That was when I knew I had to quit driving for a living.
I didn’t quit right away. I went to see a therapist about my problem: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It was helpful to talk about my problem. My particular problem was one the therapist hadn’t seen before: driving related PTSD.
An opportunity arose at the company when our manager asked me to become the warehouse manager. I jumped at the chance, because it would take me off the road. I did that for a while, long enough to get the warehouse back in order after a disastrous merger with another company. I got into an argument with a middle manager and he said he was putting me back on the truck. I said “No you’re not, because I quit”. He didn’t know the reason why, but there was no way I was going back to driving a truck.
I got a job at Barnes and Noble Booksellers after that. It was probably the happiest time in my life. I didn’t have to drive all day every day. I made lots of new friends. I worked around books. I even fell in love.
After working there a year I had a couple weeks of vacation, so I planned to drive back east to visit an old friend and my parents. I worked nights and got off work around midnight, so I planned to leave after work. Even though I knew driving late at night isn’t a good idea.
Sure enough, around 3:30 in the morning, between Forest City and West Memphis, Arkansas, on Interstate 40 east, I came upon stopped traffic and a wreck that had just happened. Sadly, a Canadian family’s minivan had smashed into the rear end of a JB Hunt tractor-trailer that was stopped on the shoulder. The minivan hit the trailer at highway speed. Two people were dead and one, the driver, was injured.
That’s not a nice thing to come across on the highway. Especially when you already have driving related PTSD. But what can you do? I did what I could, along with others, to comfort the injured driver, and I found something to cover the bodies of the dead.
When I got to Memphis, about 5 hours later, I got gas, I got a room, I prayed for the family, and I wept.
I was pretty angry with God after that. We talked, and I assured him that I would see no more carnage on my trip. That that was IT! for this trip.
I didn’t see any more wrecks on that trip, thank God. That one was more than enough.
I’ve had a few driving jobs since that time. Some local, some longer distances, but at this point in time I haven’t driven a truck professionally since 2014.
I drove to Florida the other day, which is a two day drive from Pennsylvania where I now live, and it was stressful. Actually, before I left for Florida, I drove to a city in Maryland twenty miles from where I live and that was stressful too. I don’t appear to be stressed when I drive. I’m calm, cool, and collected like I always am… but I’m waiting… I’m waiting to be hit… I’m waiting for someone else to be hit…. I’m expecting death and destruction to occur any moment. Unlike most people, when I wake up the day I’m planning to drive somewhere, I’m somewhat afraid to do so. I always think long and hard about whether or not any drive is worth the risk. In the end I usually overcome my fear and just go. I’m still afraid but I know I can’t stop living, which, for most of us, includes driving on a regular basis.
Most people don’t expect those things when they drive. They just drive and that’s it. Most people are surprised when accidents happen. I’m surprised when they don’t. I always considered the fact that any time I get into a car it may be the day I die. It is, for a lot of people, so why not me? The odds are pretty good it may be my day, especially since I have so many miles under my belt. I feel like my number is coming up.
Although PTSD can be, they say, caused by one traumatic event, I’ve always been of the opinion PTSD is caused by repeated exposure to traumatic events in a dangerous environment, like combat. For example, what used to be called “battle fatigue” wasn’t caused by one experience or one battle, it was caused by many experiences and many battles. It was caused by the daily risk of dying a violent death and daily witnessing the violent deaths of others over an extended period of time. When it comes to stress like that, everyone has a breaking point. I reached mine that day I considered not clocking in for work. I simply couldn’t take any more death and destruction.
The thing about driving related PTSD is that you can’t stop driving. I would like to, but it’s not practical for me to do so right now, and it’s not practical for most people to stop driving. Unlike combat, which comes to an end when soldiers return from war, driving never ends. For me it’s like I’m a soldier with combat related PTSD being forced to go back into combat day after day with no end in sight. For me, cars and trucks are like bullets flying all around me, and I’m just waiting for someone, including me, to get hit. I was almost hit by a tractor-trailer that came across the median on Interstate 30 in Arkansas one day. You wouldn’t believe how fast it happened. One second the truck was where it was supposed to be and the next second it was on my side of the road slamming into and killing the guy behind me. I think about that incident when I drive. I know how fast death can occur on the highway. And it’s not something I enjoy thinking about. Nor is it a risk I enjoy taking. But I can’t stop living. And a PTSD therapy dog isn’t going to help me either. The dog would just be another innocent soul along for another death defying ride, right? Why put the poor dog at risk, too? Like I said, there’s no end to the stress factors when it comes to driving related PTSD. You just have to keep going out there, day after day, and hoping for the best. Thankfully, I’m in a situation now where I don’t do much driving. I only drive when I have to. I spend most of my time hiking and mountain biking in the mountains behind my house. I enjoy the slow pace, the animals, the trees, the peace. I hate the highway, the stress, the death and destruction, and I wish I could avoid it forever.
There’s not much information online about driving related PTSD. Not the kind of truck driving related PTSD that I have anyway. I found one article about it. I’ll include it along with another link below. Perhaps this article may be of some help someday to someone who suffers from the same problem I do. I hope so.
I’m driving back to PA from Florida in a couple of days so, who knows… I may never get back to PA alive. I hope I do, but I’m prepared, like always, to be killed on the highway. Hopefully I won’t see anyone else killed on the highway either. I’m really tired of that.
Drive safe! 🙂
When long-haul trucking leads to mental-health problems
“Around a third of the 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. will be involved in a serious road accident at some point during their careers. That’s a lot of people—more than a million—experiencing potentially severe job-related trauma. In fact, long-haul truckers have some of the highest rates of injuries and illness of all occupations—which makes it all the more alarming that truckers often have a difficult time accessing mental-health services… The job of a trucker, in other words, can mean dealing with PTSD, regularly facing trauma triggers, and battling exhaustion through it all—without professional help to identify or manage these mental-health problems.” Read more: When long-haul trucking leads to mental-health problems https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/long-haul-trucking-and-mental-health/474840/
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
“Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a pathological anxiety disorder resulting after exposure to a traumatic event. Current literature estimates that 8% of the U.S. population meets the criteria for PTSD and while PTSD cases commonly involve combat or assault experiences, there is a wide range of events capable of triggering PTSD symptoms. These events include car accidents, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and any other traumatic experience where an individual experienced or witnessed an event that involved death or the threat of physical harm.” Source: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder http://www.med.upenn.edu/ctsa/ptsd_symptoms.html