Manitoba man grateful for 'second chance' after falling asleep, hitting semi

A Souris man is warning others not to drive while fatigued after a serious crash that nearly cost him his life.

Robert Simard warns others about dangers of fatigued driving after near-fatal accident

Robert Simard's 2017 Ford F-150 right after he fell asleep and drifted into the path of a semi. He says he's grateful the vehicle 'crumpled in all the right places' and saved his life. (Submitted/Robert Simard)

WARNING: Story contains graphic image of injury.

A Souris man is warning others not to drive while tired after a serious crash that nearly cost him his life this summer.

Robert Simard says he was just minutes from his home near the southwestern Manitoba town on the morning of Aug. 10 when, just before 7 a.m., he fell asleep at the wheel and drifted into the path of a semi.

The 34-year-old self-employed millwright had just finished a 12-hour overnight shift in Brandon, about 35 kilometres away.

'Your husband's been in an accident'

The last thing he remembers before the crash is slowing down in the 50 kilometre per hour speed zone going through Souris and then getting back up to the highway speed of 100 kilometres per hour.

"The next thing I remember was a big loud bang and a bunch of glass flying into my face and being hit by several air bags," said Simard.

Robert Simard working on occupational therapy tasks in the kitchen at the Riverdale Health Centre is Rivers, Man. He says he is grateful for the caring and amazing staff there. (Jennifer Fouillard)

"I knew I was hurt. A bystander came to my vehicle asking me questions. I remember attempting to move my left leg and only the top portion of it moved … I knew I couldn't move because I was injured that badly," he says.

"I remember asking if the semi driver was OK — basically followed by, 'Please get ahold of my wife,' because I didn't know what the outcome would be."

First responders arrived and used the Jaws of Life to extricate him from his mangled truck.

Simard's wife, Shelley, at home with her two young children, initially missed the call from the scene. But she saw the text.

"It said, 'Can you please call me, your husband's been in an accident,' and that's it, that's all. It was kind of surreal, and terrifying … just not knowing," she recalled.

But she couldn't call back, because her phone died and they had no landline.

The Simard family on a family vacation a year ago in Calgary. From left: Shelley, Makayla, Robert and Lylah. (Mellissa Kowal)

She hustled her children, Makayla, 6, and Lylah, 2, into the car, but had no idea where the accident was.

"I was just going to drive to the police department in Souris, because I figured someone there would know."

But she was only a couple of kilometres down Highway 2 when she saw the flashing lights.

Extensive injuries

"All I could see was fire trucks, an ambulance and a semi. They just told me to pull over to the side of the road, and the fire chief came to talk to me."

The chief told her the STARS air ambulance helicopter was on the way, and he'd be going to Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg after a quick stop at the Souris hospital. He was already in the ambulance but she didn't get to speak with him.

An X-ray of Simard's broken femur shows how extensively it was broken. He says he's still not able to stand on it but is making progress. (Submitted/Robert Simard)
"They were just trying to stabilize him and get him on his way."

Simard's injuries were extensive, including a fractured sternum, a broken femur, a broken ankle, a broken elbow and a lacerated spleen that was causing internal bleeding.

When Shelley finally saw him at HSC, she was actually relieved.

"I was kind of, in my mind, expecting way worse in a way and when I saw him it was just nice to see he was awake and talking," she said.

After almost a week at HSC, Simard was transferred to Riverdale Health Centre, in Rivers, Man., where he is still working on rehabilitating.

Drives about 100,000 km per year

"It's coming along. I'm getting some mobility back in my left leg and my arm. I'm still not able to put any weight on my left leg so I'm in a wheelchair," he told CBC News Monday.

Robert Simard gives a big thumbs up in a room at Riverdale Health Centre. He's been there since August and feels he's making good progress. (Anna Tolton)
"I manage to do some exercises standing up. So I'm getting stronger every day."

But besides his goal to regain his health, he has another mission: to warn people about the dangers of driving while fatigued.

Last Sunday, he made an impassioned plea on his Facebook page and shared graphic pictures of his broken body and of his recovery. He urged everyone to share his post and learn from his big mistake.

Simard said as a self-employed millwright, he works in many different towns and drives about 100,000 kilometres a year. The night of the crash, he said he'd had a tea after work and felt good to go.

He knows he is often tired after working a 12-hour shift, but thought he was handling the risk and being responsible.

'Not worth the risk'

"I have felt myself nod off before, but once I catch it I pull to the side of the road and have a nap. And then from there, you know, you're refreshed a bit to carry on your journey," he said.

Simard says a nurse took this picture of his mangled elbow shortly after his arrival at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre. He says he's included graphic photos on his Facebook post to draw attention to the dangers of driving while fatigued. (Submitted/Robert Simard)
"But I guess this time I don't know if I felt myself dozing off … and I was just so close to home.

"You don't think, 'Oh, I should pull over and nap for 20 minutes before I carry on.' You think, 'I'm only three miles from home. Just keep pushing through.'"

He says since the crash, his attitude has changed completely.

"If I am ever capable of doing the 12-hour shifts again, I know for a fact that … after a 12-hour night shift I will be getting a hotel or staying at family's place at whatever town I'm working in. It's not worth the risk because I know I'm tired after a 12-hour shift."

He also plans on working less, and making more time for family. 

And Simard has another mission. He'd love to meet the driver of the semi.

"Sit down, have a coffee, talk about it. And thank him for it," he said.

"I heard a bit of a story where he attempted to veer away because he saw me coming towards him. You know, if he had not have done that, I might not be here today. It could have been a different story."

Lucky man

He's keenly aware that people who drive fatigued can kill.

Robert Simard is grateful his driving mistake didn't leave two-year-old Lylah and six-year-old Makayla without a dad. But even so, they miss him not being at home as he goes through rehabilitation. (Carleigh Babiak Photography)
"You can fall asleep and hit a van of a whole family, and nothing happens to you. But yet, there's lives taken away in that van. And those are things you have to live with for your whole life."

He's very grateful that he didn't kill anyone.

In fact, his overwhelming thoughts these days are of gratitude — gratitude for the first responders, for the now-destroyed 2017 Ford F-150 that "crumpled in all the right places" and saved his life, and for the staff at the Riverdale Health Centre in Rivers.

He's also grateful for Shelley, his little girls and his extended family.

And he's grateful for the chance to reach people and warn them about the dangers of driver fatigue.

"A lot of people that have been involved in an accident like myself, they're not able to talk about it. They didn't come out as lucky as I have. They didn't get a second chance."
Robert Simard says he was just minutes from his home near the southwestern Manitoba town on the morning of Aug. 10 when, just before 7 a.m., he fell asleep at the wheel and drifted into the path of a semi. 3:05

About the Author

Janice Grant

Associate Producer

Janice Grant has worked in all areas of CBC Manitoba over the last 27 years. She has a special interest in community and mental health stories.