Stay Alert; Stay Alive

Are you driving while drowsy? Learn warning signs and what to do to prevent injury
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Surprising Stats

In New Jersey, a driver who has been without sleep for 24 hours is considered to be driving recklessly, in the same class as an intoxicated driver.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that one out of every six (16.5%) deadly traffic accidents, and one out of eight (12.5%) crashes requiring hospitalization of car drivers or passengers is due to drowsy driving. (AAA, 2010)

Researchers estimate that more than 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. (Institute of Medicine, 2005) One of the most serious consequences of insufficient sleep is traffic accidents due to drowsy driving. A recent study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that one out of every six (16.5%) deadly traffic accidents, and one out of eight (12.5%) crashes requiring hospitalization of car drivers or passengers is due to drowsy driving. (AAA, 2010) Experts suspect that even these disturbingly high figures underestimate the number of accidents or near-miss accidents due to drowsy driving because of drivers being unaware or not admitting they were drowsy at the time of the accident, or police not acquiring that information.

In the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America 2009 poll, more than half of adults (54%) reported they have driven at least once while drowsy in the past year, with almost a third (28%) reporting that they do so at least once per month.

Although certain segments of the population are more prone to drowsy driving, such as commercial truck drivers, shift workers, young men, people taking sedating medicines, or those with sleep disorders, drowsy driving is such a prevalent condition that “in many cases it is the average ‘driver next door’ who just happens to be putting in extra hours at work, adjusting to a new baby in the household, staying out late for a party, or trying to make it back home after an out-of-town trip,” noted one group of researchers. (Stutts, et al, 1999)

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.


The good news: Drowsy driving is preventable and treatable. Stop driving if you exhibit these warning signs.

Dr. Xue Ming a sleep expert of New Jersey Medical School, says if you are experiencing these signs, you are already too tired to drive. In fact, at this point, you most likely have already experienced “micro sleep”: 2–30 second sleeps. These episodes are especially dangerous as the driver might not even realize that an episode had occurred. It’s important that you pull over immediately for your safety and for the safety of those on the road with you if you experience any of these symptoms:

·       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.

Dr. Ming says if you can, take a 30-minute nap when you pull over. That should help you get through one hour of driving. Barring that, other tactics to try include: drinking coffee, turning the radio up, turning the dashboard light up as much as possible if it’s at night.

These tactics will help you keep your brain alert in an emergency situation, but prevention and preparation is truly the only way to prevent drowsy driving. “When you are sleep-deprived for more than 24 hours, you need stronger stimulation to maintain alertness,” Dr. Ming says. “Typically you remain awake due to sensory input—light, noises, feeling, temperature—that keeps you alert. When you are sleep-deprived you need stronger sensory stimulation to keep your brain awake. When you don’t have that and have little stimulation, your brain will drift into a sleep or micro-sleep state. In micro-sleep, your eyes might be open but you are not registering. You feel like you’re awake, but you’re really asleep.”

According to Dr. Ming, here is what you can do to help stay awake, alert while on the road, especially if you are planning for a long trip:

·      Get a good night’s sleep, especially before a long drive. Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night. But people with sleep disorder like apnea may not get quality sleep even if they are sleeping 8 hours a night. “If you snore or your partner notices you stop breathing at night, it’s not something to brush off,” Dr. Ming says. “You should go see a doctor. You can drink all the coffee you want and take naps, but it won’t be refreshing because of the sleep apnea, which needs to be professionally treated.” For a more quality sleep, try using a wedge or an adjustable bed to elevate the head when sleeping. This prevents the tongue from falling back and blocking the airway, which disrupts sleep.

·      Don’t be too rushed to arrive at your destination. Many drivers try to maximize their vacations 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. Tag-team with another driver on a long trip to allow both of you to get some rest and to have someone watch out for signs of driver 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 30-minute nap, if you think you might fall asleep.

·      Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness as a side-effect.

·      Whenever possible avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep. Nightime is obvious, but there are other times when you are at risk for drowsiness, says Dr. Ming. “We are most vulnerable between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. We are less alert at this time, which makes driving during these hours risky for people who work shifts.” Another period when we are at our most drowsy is from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Energy levels drop during this time due to the body's circadian rhythms, which act as an internal clock and control normal sleep/wake cycles. You are even more at risk during this time if you had a large lunch and/or did not sleep well the night before.

·      Use light to keep you alert. Dr. Ming suggests turning up the dashboard lights at night. Also, you can install a light box that simulates bright morning light on the passenger side to use for day driving.

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