You’re heading home along the interstate late at night. There’s no one else in the car with you, and few cars on the road. Your eyes become transfixed on the road in front of you, and your mind wanders. Soon, you feel your eyelids becoming heavy. Only a minute later, you can barely keep your head up. It would feel so good to close your eyes – just for a second or two.
Drowsy driving slows reaction time, decreases awareness, and impairs judgment, just like drugs or alcohol. While many people would never even consider getting behind the wheel after having an alcoholic drink, they don’t give a second thought to heading home after a late night when they’re exhausted. The fact is, just like drugs and alcohol; sleepiness can contribute to a motor vehicle crash.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that in a calendar year, 91,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers. These crashes led to an estimated 50,000 people injured and nearly 800 deaths. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analysis of the accidents resulting from drivers falling asleep behind the wheels is cause for alarm and concern. According to the study, younger drivers age 16-24 were nearly twice as likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash as drivers age 40-59, and about 57 percent of drowsy driving crashes involved the driver drifting into other lanes or even off the road.
Who is at risk? A poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation states that sleep related crashes are most common in young people, between the ages of 18-29 compared to other age groups especially men and shift workers. Men are more likely than women to drive while drowsy (56% vs. 45%) and are almost twice as likely as women to fall asleep while driving (22% vs. 12%). Adults with children in the household are more likely to drive drowsy than those without children (59% vs. 45%). Shift workers are more likely than those who work a regular daytime schedule to drive to or from work drowsy at least a few days a month (36% vs. 25%). Commercial drivers, especially the long-haul drivers, account for 15% of all heavy truck crashes involving fatigue. People with undiagnosed or untreated disorders, people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea have been shown to have up to a seven times increased risk of falling asleep at the wheel. Business travelers who spend many hours behind the wheel or in the air may be jet lagged.
Here are some signs that should tell a driver to stop and rest:
• Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
• Daydreaming; wandering/disconnected thoughts
• Trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs
• Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
• Trouble keeping your head up
• Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
• Feeling restless and irritable
Here are some other tips to keep in mind:
• While driving, pay attention to the danger signs that warn you you’re about to fall asleep and respond accordingly.
• Plan to drive during times when you are normally awake and stay overnight rather than trying to travel straight through.
• Avoid traveling during your body’s normal “down times,” such as between midnight and 6 a.m.
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• If you have someone else traveling with you, make conversation to keep you alert. A passenger can also let you know when you are showing signs of getting sleepy.
• Make sure both people in the front seat are awake. Anyone who wants to sleep should go to the back seat to sleep.
• When driving, schedule a break every two hour or every 100 miles. Stop sooner if you show danger signs of falling asleep.
• During your breaks, take a nap, stretch, take a walk, or do some other form of exercise before getting back into the car.
• Finally, if you show danger signs of falling asleep, do not continue driving. Pull off the road to an appropriate rest stop and take a nap.
For the complete Nation Sleep Foundation poll and for additional information visit drowsydriving.org.
Maggie Rauser is the Safe Kids coordinator for the Carroll County Health Department.