HIGHWAY SAFETY? DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH
by Todd Hartley
Something happened recently northwest of Portland, Oregon, that really touched a nerve for me personally, and if you don’t mind I’d like to drop my usual snarkiness and cynicism for the week to discuss this serious topic in the adult manner that it deserves.
For I am a tunnel breath-holder. I hold my breath when I drive through tunnels — not every tunnel and not every time, but when the opportunity is there, I usually inhale a big lungful before going in and see if I can make it. I don’t remember why or when I started doing it, but it was a long time ago.
I realize that holding my breath in a tunnel while driving a car is a stupid thing to do, but I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t afflicted with stupid, would I? And I’ve always justified my actions by telling myself that it had to be impossible to hold my breath until I passed out. That just seemed logical to me.
Turns out, as the incident near Portland proves, that I was wrong, though thankfully not dead wrong.
What happened was that a 19-year-old man, a fellow breath-holder, caused a three-car collision in a tunnel when he tried to hold his breath and passed out at the wheel. His car then drifted across the centerline and collided head-on with another car before hitting the side of the tunnel and being struck by a pickup.
Luckily, no one was killed, though four people, including the 19-year-old, were taken to hospitals with non-life-threatening injuries.
Anyway, as you can imagine, I read the harrowing account of what clearly is a breath-holder’s worst nightmare come true, and I just thanked my lucky stars it’s never happened to me. Looking back, I’ve probably been close a couple of times with my wife and son in the car with me.
And all for a dumb superstition that I’m probably not interpreting correctly to begin with. I always figured that successfully holding your breath through a tunnel must mean that you got good luck or were able to ward off evil spirits, but in truth I don’t think I’ve ever known what the superstition actually is.
After the Portland affair, I did an Internet search for “Why do people hold their breath in tunnels” to see if I could learn anything. The top reply that wasn’t pay-to-view or about the crash in Portland was on Yahoo Answers, which, if you’ve never visited it, may be the single largest repository of stupid in the known universe.
Someone had asked the question “Why do people hold their breath when going through a tunnel?” and the answers ranged from “to prevent ear blockage” to “for good luck.” Two commenters wrote that if you held your breath through a tunnel, you got to make a wish, and now that I think about it, I believe they’re right. I think that’s what I originally thought.
My favorite comment, though, was from someone with a cute cartoon girl for an avatar and the user name Giggly Giraffe, who wrote, “I’ve never meet (sic) anyone talented enough to drive through the ‘Eisenhower Tunnel’ and hold their breath! (Wink)”
Well, Ms. Giraffe, guess what: Yours truly actually has done the Eisenhower Tunnel breath-hold twice. Those, naturally, were two of the times I’ve probably been close to passing out behind the wheel.
The Eisenhower Tunnel is and will continue to be my personal best, at nearly 1.7 miles long. If I was driving at 60 mph, that means I held my breath for 1:42. Apparently, I was going faster than 60. But that’s my limit; any longer than that, and I’m sure I would pass out.
With that being the case, I was curious to know how long the tunnel near Portland must have been to make someone actually pass out. You’d figure it must be a couple of miles, right? I mean, the kid’s 19, his lungs should be in shape still. He’s got to be able to hold his breath as long as I can.
So I read on, and toward the bottom of The Associated Press story on the Portland crash, I read that the tunnel is “772 feet long, meaning that a car traveling at the posted speed limit of 55 mph would get through it in about 10 seconds.”
Wait, what? Ten seconds? And the kid claims he passed out?
Stop texting and driving and then lying about it, you punk.
Todd Hartley was the first man to hold his breath through the Chunnel.