This is a truly bizarre story. Like many families, our kids often play the game of holding their breath in tunnels. For some it is fun and for others it is superstitious. For Daniel J. Calhoun, 19, it was potentially fatal. Police say that Calhoun told them that he passed out while trying to hold his breath for the length of a tunnel northwest of Portland. He caused a three-car accident.
Calhoun was driving a 1990 Toyota Camry through the Highway 26 tunnel near Manning when his car drifted into the opposing lane and struck a Ford Explorer. Both vehicles hit the tunnel wall and then were struck by a pickup truck. Four people, including Calhoun, were taken to the hospital.
The tunnel in question is 772 feet long and the posted speed is 55 mph. That would mean that you would have to hold your breath for 10 seconds, which does not appear enough to cause someone to pass out or lose control. The average person can hold their breath for roughly two minutes. People who train can extend that time like David Blaine who holds a record of 17 minutes and 4 seconds after breathing in pure oxygen. The record without the use of pure oxygen is 8 minutes and 58 seconds.
If you look at the picture above, the Camry actually appears relatively close to the opening or end (if the car spanned around) of the tunnel.
The fear of tunnels is a common phobia and can cause panic attacks, including breathing problems in some people. Over 50 million Americans are estimated to be struggling with such anxiety disorders. Given the short distance of the tunnel in this case, there is an obvious possibility of such a disorder but there is no indication that that is the reason for Calhoun reportedly holding his breath.
What is notable is that police have thrown the book at Calhoun, who is now charged with reckless driving, three counts of reckless endangerment and fourth-degree assault. The fourth degree assault charge is particularly interesting. In Oregon, that charge can be based on the belief that a person “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly caused physical injury to another, or
as a result of criminal negligence, caused physical injury to another with a deadly or dangerous weapon.” (Or. Rev. Stat. §163.160.). That might prompt a defense attorney to seriously pursue the question of a sudden panic attack or anxiety disorder. If there was no prior knowledge of the condition, it could be a defense or at least a mitigating circumstance.
If there is a torts lawsuit, the line can be tricky. I teach a case, Breunig v. American Family Insurance Co., 173 N.W.2d 619 (Wis. 1970), where the defendant was driving when she believed God took control of the car and when she saw a truck coming, “stepped on the gas to become airborne because she knew she could fly because Batman does it.” (This is by the way a clear indication of insanity since everyone knows Batman cannot fly). She was still found guilty of negligence because she had knowledge or forewarning of her mental delusions or disability. Courts will allow an insanity defense in such cases when they do not have notice or forewarning and the condition denies the person’s ability to exercise reasonable care or to act in an “ordinarily prudent manner.” In addition, the person must not have notice or forewarning that he may suddenly subject to such a type of insanity. Of course, if he were to prevail on such a claim, it would likely be difficult to retain his license without a demonstration of medication or treatment to the satisfaction of the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Of course, none of this may be relevant if Calhoun was just playing the tunnel game and has a decidedly short capacity for holding his breath. Then there is the possibility that the claim of holding one’s breath was a cover for some other cause. However, I assume that Calhoun was tested for any drugs or alcohol. The case seems a likely candidate for a plea so we may never have an adjudication of that issue.