Drowsy Driving Crashes: Prevalent and Preventable

Nearly 2 years ago, the National Sleep Foundation published a survey on “Drowsy Driving.” This information, despite being a year and a half old, is just as important today as when it was first released. Please take a moment to read this report as its relevance is timeless.

R. Popper

National Sleep Foundation Releases Safety Guidelines for
Drowsy Driving Prevention Week

WASHINGTON, DC, November 8, 2010, Today kicks off Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, a National Sleep Foundation public awareness campaign to educate drivers about sleep safety. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a new study showing that the tragedy of drowsy driving is more pervasive than shown in previous estimates. Their study shows that drowsy driving involves about one in eight deadly crashes; one in ten crashes resulting in occupant hospitalization, and one in twenty crashes in which a vehicle was towed. These percentages are substantially higher than most previous estimates, suggesting that the contribution of drowsy driving to motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and deaths has not been fully appreciated.

“This should be a wake up call to our legislators and our elected representatives,” says David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation. “Driving while drowsy seriously affects our safety on the road. More action and education are needed to combat this problem.” Dr. Ronald A. Popper, Medical Director of the Southern California Pulmonary and Sleep Disorders Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, CA. states that “more than 25% of the patients evaluated at our center for excessive daytime sleepiness have admitted to either having had an accident or nearly had a motor vehicle accident within the past year” and about “5% of the patients admit that this is what ultimately prompted their seeking medical attention”.

According to the Foundation's 2009 Sleep in America poll, about one-third (28%) of Americans admitted that they have fallen asleep behind the wheel within the past year, and more than half (54%) said they have driven while drowsy. The AAA Foundation study shows that more than a quarter of surveyed adults admitted they drove despite being so tired that they had difficulty keeping their eyes open in the previous month.

“It is shocking that so many people admit that they frequently drive in an incapacitated state,” says Cloud. “The good news is that fatigue related crashes are preventable. The bad news is that there is a knowledge and awareness gap about the danger of driving when you're too sleepy. Many people think they can will themselves to stay awake no matter how tired they are, but science shows us that simply isn't true.” Dr. Popper states that “while most people understand the risks of driving while intoxicated with drugs or alcohol, they don't seem to understand that they may be just as impaired while driving drowsy”.

Sleepiness can impair drivers by causing slower reaction times, vision impairment, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information. In fact, studies show that being awake for more than 20 hours results in an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, the legal limit in all states. It is also possible to fall into a 3-4 second microsleep without realizing it.

“Drowsy driving is a major traffic safety problem that, unfortunately, is largely unrecognized,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. “We need to change the culture so that drivers recognize the dangers, appreciate the consequences and most importantly, stop driving while sleepy.”

Feeling sleepy? Stop driving if you exhibit these warning signs.

The following warning signs indicate that it's time to stop driving and find a safe place to pull over and address your condition:

  • Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking and/or heavy eyelids
  • Difficulty keeping reveries or daydreams at bay
  • Trouble keeping your head up
  • Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating and/or hitting rumble strips
  • Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven
  • Missing exits or traffic signs
  • Yawning repeatedly
  • Feeling restless, irritable, or aggressive.

Here's what you can do to prevent a crash:

  • Get a good night's sleep before you hit the road. You'll want to be alert for the drive, so be sure to get adequate sleep (seven to nine hours) the night before you go.
  • Don't be too rushed to arrive at your destination. Many drivers try to maximize the holiday weekend by driving at night or without stopping for breaks. It's better to allow the time to drive alert and arrive alive.
  • Use the buddy system. Just as you should not swim alone, avoid driving alone for long distances.
  • A buddy who remains awake for the journey can take a turn behind the wheel and help identify the warning signs of fatigue.
    Take a break every 100 miles or 2 hours. Do something to refresh yourself like getting a snack, switching drivers, or going for a run.
    Take a nap – find a safe place to take a 15 to 20-minute nap, if you think you might fall asleep. Be cautious about excessive drowsiness after waking up.
  • Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness as a side-effect.
  • Avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep.
  • Consume caffeine. The equivalent of two cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hours.

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