Drowsy driving is dangerous driving


August 24, 2004|By Jody K. Vilschick | Jody K. Vilschick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WITH GOOD reason, we who drive perfectly often criticize other categories of drivers, especially drunken drivers (no amount of alcohol is too little before deciding to hand the keys to someone else).

But what about the sleep-deprived? Falling asleep at the wheel can have dangerous, often fatal, consequences. And sometimes sleep happens and we don't even know it.

Here is an eye-opener: According to a report by the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research, drowsy drivers cause more fatalities per accident than drunken drivers.

This is backed up by statistics from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which estimates that approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes annually (about 1.5% of all crashes) involve drowsiness or fatigue as a principal causal factor.

According to National Sleep Foundation's 2002 Sleep in America survey, about one-half of America's adult drivers - 51% or approximately 100 million people - are on the roads feeling sleepy while they are driving. Nearly two in 10 drivers surveyed say they have fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year.

Besides diminished productivity, the cost of drowsy driving includes property damage estimated at $12.5 billion annually.

Who are the sleep-deprived? Teenagers are well-known for not getting enough sleep. They stay up too late, and school starts too early. But they also include parents of infants; those who stay up late and get up early to maximize their time at home; those who work two jobs or changing shifts; and those who simply enjoy reading into all hours of the night. In short, anybody at all.

In fact, I know of several adults who pride themselves on sleeping for only four or five hours a night, and they seem to perform well and feel well. But are they really alert, and do we really want to share the road with them?

Not according to sleep expert James Maas, a professor of psychology at Cornell University. Maas said that adults need eight hours of sleep a night. Any less, and their bodies may go to sleep on them.

"Several experiments at Stanford University confirm we microsleep without awareness - sometimes for several seconds - enough to cause a traffic accident," he said.

Teenagers need more than eight hours, according to Maas. "Nine and a quarter hours is what teens need to be fully alert," he said.

The problem is that people are not good at predicting their alertness. People increase their alertness by 20 percent when going from eight to nine hours of sleep, said Maas. He warned that sleep-deprived people can feel alert and still show slower reaction times than those who sleep an adequate number of hours.

"Overconfidence in ability to perform maximally is frequently seen in `macho' short sleepers," he said. In addition, "people are terrible at stating how much sleep they get - they often underestimate their actual sleep time."

Drowsy drivers are a big problem. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that at least 200,000 traffic accidents a year occur because of driver fatigue. A study by the National Transportation Safety Board found that one-third of all truck accidents resulting in the death of the driver probably were caused by sleep deprivation. Other national studies have estimated that at least 20 percent of all drivers have fallen asleep while driving. Here are suggestions to avoid driving tired:

Start any trip - including going to work - by getting enough sleep the night before. Plan to drive during time periods when you are normally awake.

If you are leaving on a very long trip, stay overnight at the midpoint rather than driving straight through.

On long trips, avoid driving during your body's natural "down time." Take a midafternoon break and find a place to sleep between midnight and 6 a.m.

Talk with your passenger if you have someone else in the car. A passenger can also let you know when you are showing signs of sleepiness. If your passenger thinks you are getting sleepy, let someone else drive or drive to a safe place and get some rest.

Make sure both people in the front of the car are awake.

Schedule a break every two hours, or every 100 miles, on longer trips. Stop sooner if you show signs of sleepiness. During your break, take a nap, stretch, take a walk and get some exercise before getting back into the car.

What's your traffic trauma? Contact Jody K. Vilschick at elison@us.net, send faxes to 410-715-2816 or mail letters to Traffic Talk, The Sun in Howard County, 30 Corporate Center, 10440 Little Patuxent Parkway, Suite 820, Columbia, 21044. Please include your full name and contact information or your comments will not be published or receive a response.

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