Gridlock Guy: Addressing medical issues behind the wheel

Why drivers shouldn’t assume the best when something feels off about themselves.

The dangers of distracted driving, drunk driving, and drowsy driving are well known, but are often underappreciated. People still wield smartphones like coffee cups, try to drive home after several drinks or while vaping delta-8, or white-knuckle exhaustingly long trips.

Drivers also can put themselves and others in real danger if they start experiencing medical problems in the car.

Human nature even tricks us into complacency: if someone is really good about not driving distracted or drunk, they may automatically dismiss that they drive drowsy. We do the same thing with food, drinks, and exercise, too, right? Our brains can be our best friend and worst enemy simultaneously.

I know I am guilty of not assuming the worst about myself or about a situation as something bad is happening. In the very moment of the chaos, I have the tendency to think I have it under control or that it certainly couldn’t be as bad as the signs indicate.

That is also another very devious facet of our human psyche. Or at least it is for us optimists.

Andy Stanley is the lead pastor of North Point Ministries, which includes my church, Decatur City Church. He shared such a driving experience in a recent message.

Some years ago, Stanley had skipped breakfast at his hotel and didn’t want to eat a junk food lunch or dinner in the airport. If his flight had been on time, he would have gotten home in plenty of time to eat a healthier dinner.

Alas, the flight was delayed - quite a bit.

By the time Stanley landed in Atlanta, Stanley said he bypassed grabbing a fast food dinner at Hartsfield-Jackson because he was 30 or 45 minutes away from being able to eat much better food at home. He hopped in his car and began the late night trek to Alpharetta.

As he drove up the Downtown Connector/northbound, he started having vision problems. Stanley kept going, thinking they would pass, but they only worsened. By the time he got north of I-20, he could barely see and somehow navigated onto an exit. After making some calls at a gas station - this was before rideshare services - Stanley hailed a taxi home.

He ended up having low blood sugar from having not eaten for so long. The vision problems were not just going to blow over. He made the right decision to bail from driving.

Stanley did not share this story to warn of the dangers of driving during a medical issue. He actually highlighted the love and charity shown by the taxi driver and a friend of his, who went out of their way to help Stanley and his car get home safely.

Stanley did acknowledge how, with hindsight, he should have pulled over sooner or not driven at all. But in the moment, he, like many of us, thought the problem would pass or that he could at least tough his way home and then figure it out.

How many of us have just said to ourselves, “I just need to make it home and then I’ll be fine,”? That slippery slope puts cars in ditches.

The WSB Traffic Team and I hear police and fire units respond to medical issues on the roads all the time. Thankfully, first responders tend to most of these instances of short breathing and chest pain on the shoulders of roads. But sometimes someone in distress will just stop in a lane or pass out at a traffic light. That makes the situation far more dangerous, as we covered in last week’s column.

One has to wonder how potentially dangerous the driving maneuvers were for these people, before they stopped their vehicles. If someone drunk, tired, or distracted is swerving or driving erratically, someone having vision, cardiac, or breathing issues certainly could be doing the same. Heck, someone with a sudden nosebleed is immediately compromised when operating a two-ton missile.

Medical issues can arise out of nowhere, before there is a real opportunity to get completely out of travel lanes or safely into a parking lot. But many big problems start as small ones. People shouldn’t wait to pull over until they almost cannot.

The same holds true for when a warning light illuminates on the dash or we think we hear the tire making a weird noise. Those are the times to steer out of danger, not when the engine overheats or the tire finally blows.

Very simply, if a driver encounters something that becomes more important than driving, they need to pull into a parking lot or onto an exit or shoulder and tend to that. People like me need to condition ourselves not to think that problems will just work themselves out. Sometimes issues do quickly subside, but we shouldn’t use our steering wheels like roulette wheels, just hoping that the problem and trip will turn out okay.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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