Tired Driving Is 'Like Driving Drunk' - Something Mike Egan Learned With Terrible Consequences

'Her head was on the steering wheel'.

23/04/2016 08:45

Mike Egan was on the way to get his hair cut when the crash happened.

It was May 2015 and he'd only been driving for a few minutes in his Vauxhall Astra, on a lane near his home in Birkenhead. Suddenly, another car swerved across the road in front of him, hitting the pavement.

“My first thought was that they wanted to park," he tells The Huffington Post UK, "but the car just flew across my path.”

Mike, 45, moved his car into the middle of the road to avoid the other car, and then he saw its driver.

He watched her lift her head up from the steering wheel. She had been fast asleep.

After waking up, the startled woman lost control of her car and accelerated forward, head on, straight into Mike.

Their cars collided with the force of a 70mph crash – she was travelling at 40mph and he at 30.

Mike Egan
Mike's car was badly damaged.

“Before I knew it, I just felt an almighty bang and heard the windscreen cracking, the airbags going off, and just the most intense pain in my chest - well my whole body really," Mike says. "I couldn’t breathe, I was convinced I was having a heart attack.”

His seatbelt fractured his sternum and broke his collarbone, and he sustained 11 rib fractures. His T12, a vertebra in the middle of your spine, collapsed. He would later develop memory problems due to the trauma. If he hadn’t been wearing a seat belt, the airbag would have snapped his neck and he would have been dead in seconds.

Miraculously, Mike remained conscious as an onlooker opened the car door and held his hand, waiting for the ambulances. He begged her not to leave him. “It was like I knew what had happened but I couldn’t believe it had happened.”

Confused thoughts rushed through his mind: “My friend lost a little baby a few years ago and I was actually thinking of him, and thinking of my sister and all my family and friends, the fact that I’d been going to he gym and just enjoying my life. It just felt like it was all over.”

Google Streeview
Kings Lane where the crash took place.

A policewoman on the scene has told him that when saw the state of his car – the two vehicles had effectively swapped lanes due to the impact – she couldn’t believe it was him screaming out in agony. “They said they couldn’t believe I was alive.”

Mike had been the victim of something more common than you'd expect. In a survey of British drivers from Time4Sleep, 83% admitted to having driven while tired. Almost a third said they feel they have put people at risk by driving while tired and 19% felt they were in danger of causing an accident. 

New research from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) has revealed that driving without enough sleep is “akin to being drunk behind the wheel” and fatigue can suddenly strike even when you don't feel tired.

The paramedics cut Mike out of the car and put him straight onto a spinal board: “Full surgical collar, built a cage around me basically, loads of tape across me.”

He saw the woman who had hit him - although amid the pain, he didn't think much about why she had crashed. “I can remember her getting out and walking in a daze, and then if I remember correctly she sat on a grass verge. I know she got taken to hospital because I did ask after her. From what I remember, she had cuts and bruises but was generally ok.”

Mike Egan
The inside of his car after he was cut out.

The woman had no serious injuries. Mike spent 72 hours in critical care and had three operations, spending ten nights in hospital and five on the horse tranquilizer Ketamine which caused hallucinations. After leaving the trauma ward, he remembered why the crash had happened.

The police confirmed that the woman driver admitted falling asleep. She was 53 and had just finished a 12-hour stint as a care worker. 

“She’d just finished her shift and she didn’t feel tired when she left work and she’s just literally gone, without any warning, just gone to sleep,” Mike says.

When Mike was told the woman who hit him would not be prosecuted, but would instead go on an awareness course, he was furious at first. But after getting some perspective, his mindset changed. 

Mike Egan
Mike was in intensive care for 72 hours.

He knew that she hadn’t been deliberately acting irresponsibly, and reasons that he’d be more angry with her if she had been on the phone when she caused the crash, “because I hate that, it's one of my major pet hates”.

His friends and family took more convincing that the awareness course was fair. “I wouldn’t repeat some of the words they used," he admits. "But I said to them look, she’s been to work, how many people in this country work nights, every night?"

Nearly a year later, and after eight months of physiotherapy because of the extent of his injuries, he even feels sympathy for her: “She’s got to live with what she did for the rest of her life. She also lost her car and her transport to work. Maybe she’s even having sleepless nights and antidepressants.”

After the crash, Mike wore a back brace for 12 weeks ("It was horrendous, one of the worst things I’ve ever had to experience. You can’t twist your body because it won’t let you, it weights about half a stone.”) Three of his ribs had to be rewired. His spine is likely to never fully recover. 

Mike Egan
The back brace.

He has never met the woman who caused his crash, and he isn’t sure if he would like to. “In some ways I think I would, but I don’t know ‘cos I still get emotional at times. Although it’s pretty horrendous, all she did was drive home from work. If she’d been on her phone or she’d been drinking, then that would be a different ball game."

“To be honest, I actually in some ways feel sorry for her, because at the end of the day I think she was a care worker, and if she’s got a conscience then she’ll be hurting herself, maybe not physically, but mental anguish.”

Mike is a former bus driver, so understands being sleepy at the wheel. He worked for a company that operated National Express coaches and did 16-hour double-man shifts: eight hours on and eight hours off. “I could never really sleep on the coach – there were no facilities, just a seat - so I’d be awake for 16 hours. When I used to drive from Runcorn to Birkenhead I used to have the window half open to help me stay awake, fighting with the tiredness.”

Tim Ireland/PA Archive
Mike used to struggle with tiredness when he was a coach driver.

Mike never returned to work full time, and has just quit his job as a compliance officer for a haulage company entirely due to stress.

He warns that everyone needs to be aware that driving when you are tired can kill. “Professional people more than anything, because companies have a duty of care. Some people feel pressured by their employer, so more than anything the employers need to be aware of it and make sure they aren’t putting too much on employees to be driving long days.”

Employers should think about the lengths of shifts, and put staff up in hotels overnight if they are required to drive long distances, he believes.

Although drink driving is more ignorant, driving tired can take you by surprise, he cautions. "You know if you’re going out and having a few drinks then you shouldn’t be taking the car in the first place, whereas maybe people don’t realise that they are tired, or they are stuck in work and can’t get home on a bus.”

“One dangerous aspect of fatigue is how it can come and go quite suddenly," says Simon Tong, the principal psychologist at TRL. "You can get a false impression that you’ve overcome it, only to find that it strikes again a short time later when you perhaps aren’t expecting it.” 

Tong's experiment, using three triplets, also found that suffering from disrupted sleep can be as dangerous as driving after no sleep.

He says no-one should ever undertake driving unless they are "feeling alert and having had sufficient sleep."

Simply being aware of your own tiredness level, in advance of getting behind the wheel, can help save lives, Mike explains: “If you can think about it before you actually take that car somewhere on that day, then you’re half way there to actually doing something about it, aren’t you?”

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