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Perils of driving at night

LAUGHLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Texas -- We've all experienced it...you're driving at night, everything seems to be proceeding normally when, suddenly, you're driving by Braille. You swerve back to the middle, the adrenaline surge bringing you back to full wakefulness. Briefly, then you do it again. Wash, rinse, repeat. 

Eventually, better judgment wins out and you pull into a rest area to get some much 
needed rest. 

The drive between Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Banning, California is 1300 miles. And I've made the trip many times. But is it worth it to risk the potential consequences of a sustained road trip of that duration? In my more formative years as a young airman, those potential consequences never occurred to me. That all changed on one such trip home for the Christmas holiday. One such time taught me a life-long lesson. 

Allow me to set the scene: Christmas is just days away. Its somewhere around three in the morning. There's no moon, no stars, no illumination other than my own headlights. I'm driving through the middle of nowhere, New Mexico on a stretch of land with about as much inflection as Ben Stein's voice. In addition, I've been passing deer crossing signs for the last ten miles or so. An accident is waiting to happen. 

I was just shaking off one of those Jell-O-neck head bobs we tend to experience when fighting off sleep. First trick: turn the music up. Loud. No dice. Alright, I'll roll the window down; get some of that cold, December air blowing on my face. It works for about five minutes, when I decide to bring out my secret weapon: sunflower seeds. They've worked for me on countless trips. Unfortunately, they didn't work this time, so I finally decided to find a rest area. 

Then, just at the edge of the range of my high beams, a large shape began to loom into view. Because I was tired it took me a minute before fully realizing what that shape was, I slammed on the brakes. 

When the car at last came to rest, I was within feet of what looked like the largest elk ever seen by human eyes. It stood impassively in front of my car, looking down into the windshield, waiting for me to make the next move. 

After a minute to think, I reversed, pulled around the elk and carried on my way at a more cautious speed. 

That night, I learned first-hand that nighttime driving is even more dangerous than daytime driving. Circadian rhythm disruption and low visibility are just two of the many factors with which to contend. 

Looking back now, I was lucky. Fortune smiled on me and allowed me to be alert enough to perceive a threat, asses it, and respond to it quickly enough for me to be able to sit here and reflect. 

Since there is no guarantee that the situation will end the same every time, it is best to analyze the risk and make a smart decision that wont end with you and an elk sharing space in your vehicle on a long, lonely stretch of the New Mexican highway.