The Chevy Cruz was traveling down a country lane at about 30 miles an hour. The driver, dressed in his orange fishing vest, hiking boots, quick-dry nylon fishing pants and Portland Sea Dogs baseball cap, loosened his grip on the steering wheel. Eyes closing, his head nodded once, slumped to his chest, rose with a start and then nodded again.

In slow motion the car began drifting into the breakdown lane. With a loud crunch, the first impact was with the guardrail, crushing the grille of the car and ripping the guardrail off its wooden post – but it was the second sound, the scraping of the car’s undercarriage on the twisted metal, that woke up the driver. He stomped on the brake pedal and cried “Oh no!” as the vehicle mowed down a clump of small birch saplings, bending and shredding them.

The driver’s second scream filled the car’s interior as the hood of the car dipped and began the long slide 20 feet down the ravine through some bushes, flattening a grove of sumac and coming to a crunching halt against a fat maple tree. Upon this final collision, car against solid tree, the car’s air bag deployed with a bang and a burst of white powder. At the same moment a bottle of Mug Root Beer that had been in the beverage tray between the two front seats became airborne, whizzed past the driver’s head and smashed into the car windshield, creating a spider web of cracks and crevices.

Awake now for 10 seconds, the man stared in puzzlement and shock at the deflated air bag, mistook the powder for smoke and reached to turn off the engine, which was coughing but still running. He groped for the door handle, pushed the twisted door open with a loud creak and fell sideways through the door, landing in a muddy patch of skunk cabbage. Hanging on to the door, he pulled himself up and reached for his cellphone.

That was me. I came out of this scene physically unscathed, I hadn’t hurt anyone and my auto insurance promptly paid out a claim for my totaled car. The only other damage I had done was to the guardrail. At the scene, I felt such shame and remorse for having fallen asleep at the wheel; I apologized profusely to all the emergency personnel who showed up to assist me. I completely owned that the accident was my fault, that I should have pulled over or never gotten behind the wheel, knowing I was tired.

Emergency personnel, my family and friends were all very supportive. Many said that they also had driven tired at some point in their lives and some had even felt themselves start to nod off but, like me, believed they could keep themselves awake.

My heart goes out to the family of the young girl who was killed as a result of being hit from behind by a driver, a former Maine prison guard who fell asleep at the wheel. And my heart goes out to him as well. Our similar decisions and actions led to such tragically different results. He was charged and convicted of manslaughter; I bought another used car.

The sense of guilt and shame I experienced at the time have been magnified since I read about this devastating accident. The difference between him and me is minuscule: which road I traveled, which way the car drifted, who was or was not in my path. I cannot say for certain that he shouldn’t be held criminally accountable – and I can’t say for sure I should have been – but when I read about what happened, I don’t see any villains, only deep, deep tragedy. And another stinging lesson for me and any of us who have ever driven while tired.

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