Clic here to read about Drowsy Driver Awareness Day - April 6, 2005
A Long Drive
by Phil Konstantin
It was a new car, or at least, it was new for Robyn. Robyn's mother had decided to get a new car, so she gave Robyn her station wagon with 60,000 miles. Robyn's old car had 180,000 miles, and almost as many stickers on it. Robyn was active in lots of groups and her vehicle reflected that fact. The newer car was going to be a considerable improvement. There was just one problem, how to get it from Florida to California.
At 46, Robyn had made many road trips. In fact, she enjoyed cruising along on the open road. So, she decided to fly out to Florida and then drive the new car back home to San Diego. The prospect of a new car really excited her. The car had more power and room than her old car. It also had cruise control, which would help on those long stretches through the desert.
Robyn was a marine biologist. She loved all sea life, but she had a special fondness for whales and dolphins. She had a small whale watching service in San Diego. She had also taken tourists out in small boats in the lagoons of Baja California, Mexico. This is where the Gray Whales spend their winters. In these isolated lagoons, the whales will actually come up to the small boats and let you touch them. With its' higher ground clearance, Robyn's new car would be a godsend for traveling across the rough roads to get to these places. She also coordinated efforts, as an unpaid volunteer, for the San Diego Oceans Foundation's White Sea Bass Project. This time consuming effort was intended to reintroduce this species to the waters near San Diego.
Anyone driving from the east coast to California has to face the daunting task of the monotony of the deserts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. There are many stories on how boring these sections of the Interstates can be. Red Skelton once described the area as, "miles and miles, of miles and miles. " Many years back when the federal government was hearing testimony on raising the speed limit from 55 to 65mph, a Texas legislator made the following comment. "You have no idea of the meaning of eternity until you have driven across west Texas at 55 miles per hour. " I have taken this route several times myself, and it is a long and dull drive unless you like the West Texas desert. (This is not intended as an insult. Many people find this part of the desert quite beautiful.)
In Robyn's case, she had spent the night with some friends in Houston. She decided to see how far she could go in one long stretch. She had had a good night's sleep and said good bye to her friends on Tuesday morning, April 6th. With plenty of pre-recorded music to keep her company, she figured she would have no problems on the long drive. Half of the trip from Houston to San Diego is in Texas. El Paso is almost exactly half way at 750 miles. Even at the higher speed limits, this still is a long drive.
It was an overcast evening as Robyn whizzed through the small town of Sierra Blanca, about 80 miles east of El Paso. Sierra Blanca is not much of a diversion for most travelers. Like so many other small towns along Interstate 10, it is just another set of gas stations for through travelers.
A few hundred people, including one paramedic, a Justice of the Peace and several members of the Texas Highway Patrol live or work in Sierra Blanca. They look at life a little differently here. While living in a small desert town is enough to make life unique, the freeway has added a special dimension to their lives. Unfortunately, many people hit their endurance limit on this stretch of road. A Trooper told me they have a considerably higher number of crashes in this area than one would expect. The Justice of the Peace agreed saying the area's public safety personnel might have a greater respect for life in this little town because they have seen so many tragedies related to fatigue.
Around 6:45pm Tuesday evening, Robyn began to experience a problem faced by many long distance drivers, fatigue. She had covered over 700 miles in about a half day. Under the best of circumstances, this can be dangerous. As the miles add up, the roadway motions and the inactivity can lull a person into a trance-like state, or even to sleep. Compounding this was an unchanging landscape which can become a deadly combination. As Robyn made her way further west, she became more tired, and the roadway helped to lull her to sleep.
As Robyn went through Sierra Blanca, who knows what was going through her mind. She might have been thinking about the boat she was about to buy so she could take people out whale watching in the Pacific off of San Diego. She might have been thinking about all the new places she would get to explore in her "new" car. She might have been thinking about calling it a night in El Paso and finally getting some sleep. She probably was not thinking about the affect she would have on several people here in this small Texas town.
A few miles west of Sierra Blanca, the Interstate has two lanes heading in each direction. These lanes are separated by a gravel and shrub median which is forty to sixty feet wide in places. Robyn was in the left of the two westbound lanes. She slowly passed a big rig. The road makes a bit of a curve to the right as it goes up a slight rise. With the cruise control on, Robyn might have had less to do, thus adding to her fatigue and boredom. She probably had her right leg moved away from the gas and the brake pedals to find a more comfortable position. It was at this point that Robyn probably dozed off for a few seconds.
As the road started to curve to the right, Robyn's car kept going straight. When her left wheels left the road and struck the center divider's gravel surface, Robyn suddenly woke up. She almost immediately realized that she had started to run off the road. Her instantaneous reaction was to jerk the wheel back to the right to get back on the road. Unfortunately, this quick motion was more than she needed to get back into the lane. Robyn oversteered and her car arched back across both lanes to the right. It struck a guardrail almost head on. In the space of less that two seconds, Robyn had gone from around 70 miles per hour, to a complete stop.
The force of the crash pinned the car under the guardrail. Robyn was also pinned inside the car. The truck she had just passed stopped to help her, and the call for help went out immediately over the CB radio system. Within seven minutes, a paramedic had arrived at the scene. Working with the truck driver's help, she did a quick assessment of Robyn's condition and then called for more help. Because of the way Robyn was trapped in the vehicle and the damage the crash had caused, it was very difficult for her to get to Robyn.
Robyn was awake and told the paramedic she could not feel her feet. This was because the crash had broken her pelvis and both of her femurs (the large thigh bones). She had also sustained massive internal injuries and a mild brain concussion. After some time had passed, a specially equipped medical helicopter from El Paso arrived at the scene. With the right tools, they were able to peel back the roof of Robyn's car and slowly pry her free. By this time, however, her heart had stopped beating and she had probably bled to death from her internal injuries. Despite their desperate efforts, an hour and a half after the crash, Robyn was pronounced dead at the scene.
For want of enough sleep, strangers shared a tragedy.
For want of enough sleep, many plans will never be completed.
For want of enough sleep, family members lost a loved one.
For want of enough sleep, my wife, Robyn Amsel Mellon Konstantin, needlessly died.
I wrote this story a few days after Robyn died. I want everyone to know that this can happen to you or your loved ones. Robyn and I had known each other for over 20 years. Even though we were going through some very rough times at the time of her death, Robyn was still a very important part of my life. Please protect yourself and your loved ones. When you feel tired or sleepy, please get some rest.
There is one other point I would like to make. Robyn and I had both decided to donate all of our organs after our deaths. When I was contacted by the coroner from the scene of the crash, she did not ask about me about it. I did not think of it at the time. It was only when I saw Robyn two days later that I remembered organ donations. I regret this lapse in memory. I know Robyn would have wanted others to be able to benefits from her organs. By the time I remembered, it was too late.
There are several ironic circumstances in Robyn's death. She was a good driver. Robyn had passed a rest area approximately one mile before she crashed. I am a California Highway Patrol Officer. My present assignment is in the Public Affairs field. One of the subjects I cover frequently is the dangers of driving when you are fatigued, drowsy or sleepy.
The local coroner contacted me an hour or two after Robyn died. The next day, Robyn's parents, her brother and I flew to El Paso. That night we all stayed in a motel in El Paso. I am one of those people who seldom remembers their dreams. In fact, I seldom even remember having had a dream, let alone what it was about. That night I had a very vivid dream. I was in my home and I heard a noise in the small room where I keep part of my library. I walked in and I saw Robyn. She was smoking. This was an on-going argument we had. I do not smoke and I did not like her smoking in the house. I told her to take the cigarette outside. Then it dawned on me, Robyn was dead. I asked her what it was like. She said, "it is better than you could ever imagine." We gave each other a big hug and we started to kiss. At this point my mind decided that this was "just too weird." I woke up. I am about the most level-headed and grounded person you will ever meet. I am very quiet about my religious beliefs. I have never received a "message" in any of the few dreams I can remember. I do not know if this was an actual message from Robyn. I can accept this as just a dream, but, if it was a message from Robyn, it was a wonderful act on her part.
In my research into the cause of Robyn's crash, I am come across some interesting facts. I have links below to other internet sites which discuss the issue. I have also compiled some statistics from government sources. Here is one significant fact. More people die each year from crashes related to Drowsy, Sleepy or Fatigued Drivers than from all of the following causes COMBINED:
Plague; Anthrax; Leprosy; Diptheria; Whooping Cough; Tetanus; Smallpox; Chicken Pox; Measles; Rubella; Yellow Fever; Dengue; Mosquito-born Encephilitis; Infectious Mononucleosis; Malaria; Venereal Diseases; Vitamin A, B, C and D Difficiencies; Gout; Glaucoma; Cataracts; Hemorrhoids; Chronic Sinusitis; Pregnancies with Abortive Outcomes; Impetigo; Psoriasis; Spina Bifida; Cleft Palate and Cleft Lip; Bites from Snakes, Lizards and Spiders; Dog Bites; Hornet, Wasp and Bee Stings; Catacylsmic Earth Movements and Eruptions; and Fireworks.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made in her name to the:
San Diego Oceans Foundation
San Diego, CA. 92169-2672
Please feel free to add a link to this site. I am available for media interviews to discuss sleepy drivers or Robyn's crash. I have also made a series of TV Public Service Announcements (PSAs) for the CHP in which I talk about Robyn's crash. The PSAs are available for airplay. You can contact me by e-mail or at the address below if you would like a copy.
P.O. Box 17515
San Diego, CA 92177-7515