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A while ago a brief article appeared in the Missoulian; the names Aaron Pattan and Carli Miller were prominent. Eight-year-old Carli died in July of 2017 as the result of decisions and actions by Pattan.

Pattan had a suspended driver’s license; he was tired, sleepy. Nevertheless, needing to get to work, and feeling his car was the only option, he drove. Pulling over at times, attempts to fight off sleep seemed to be working. It was a false promise. A jolt awake from a drift onto the shoulder, an over-correction into the opposite lane; and the barely begun tapestry of Carli’s young life was torn asunder.

Reading the article, my mind went back five decades; and I was auditioning for a role in this horror movie. For the part of Aaron Pattan.

A college junior, I was driving my VW beetle on a portion of Interstate 90/94 connecting my classes in Milwaukee to my home in Racine, Wisconsin. Pavement so smooth and straight it was almost angelic. Comfortable. Boring. Recognizing my sleepiness; I turned the vent window (remember those?) to stream the chill March air onto my face. I turned the radio up intentionally on a station I didn’t like. Headlights on the green freeway sign said a quarter mile to my exit; only a dozen miles ‘till home.

And the next thing I saw was — nothing. No exit. Just more freeway. My eyes had been shut as I drove right past my exit. Or perhaps they were open and my brain had just shut down from fatigue. A literal and figurative wakeup call, to be sure. I took the next exit, got out to do some jumping jacks, and continued home. Safe. Grateful. Reformed.

Some months earlier I’d received an artificial heart valve to repair a birth defect, bringing a new and strange sense of having my whole life before me. And now another fortunate reprieve from a too-early demise.

And the far greater fortune was that there was no Carli in my path that night. If there had been, the idea that my thoughts of “I can handle this” (my fatigue) had made me a killer would have been devastating, but in no way a match for the emotional earthquake I would have set upon an entire family. And the idea of my serving days rather than months incarcerated would have been a cruel embarrassment, a salting of their wounds.

Humans. We have this amazing and frightening ability to overestimate our capacities and underestimate our potential failings, especially when behind the wheel. The impatience, the ego, the decision to have some drinks before hitting the road; these frailties and deadly decisions are the reason for so many unnecessary deaths and life-altering injuries. But they are never, ever, excuses.

Our legislators have recently reduced their softness regarding DUI offenses. It’s time they follow up by making drowsy driving, and texting and seatbelt non-use while they’re at it, a primary driving violation. Let them know how you feel.

Finally, here’s a request; an invitation for you to share a ritual of mine. Before turning the ignition key, look in the mirror and say to yourself, “No more Carli Millers.” It’s a promise to her memory and your own humanity that Job 1, every time you’re behind the wheel, is to do everything possible to keep from killing or injuring a beautiful 8-year-old. Or any-year-old.

Any impediment to responsibly operating a potentially deadly machine is unacceptable. Just ask the Miller family.

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Gene Schmitz is a retired small-business owner and science teacher. He is a lifelong bicyclist and traffic safety advocate, and serves as chair of the Missoula Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and are not necessary shared by the board. 

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