“Ever fall asleep at a stop sign?” That is a standard question asked by sleep specialists across the country. Unfortunately, they are not surprised when the answer is “Yes.” We’re entering the time of year when people do those fun summer road trips, which can mean lots of monotonous driving. For people who haven’t had enough sleep, this is prime time for drowsy driving.
Drowsy driving accounts for over 100,000 accidents each year, and causes 1550 deaths! The number of fatigue-related accidents may actually be much higher than this estimate because is it so difficult to detect. Fatigue-related accidents usually occur with a driver who is alone, driving at night, during the mid-afternoon lull, or at another time they are usually asleep. As opposed to a drunk driver, the drowsy driver will not swerve, apply the brakes or take any action to avoid the accident. They can’t, because they are asleep.
In 2005 the National Sleep Foundation conducted a large poll about drowsy driving. 60% of drivers said they had driven while drowsy, and an amazing 37% admitted to falling asleep at the wheel in the last year. Personally, these are alarming statistics to remember whenever I get on the road.
You are at risk if you have been awake for greater than 16 or 17 hours, are chronically sleep deprived, or have had a sleepless night. If you have an untreated sleep disorder such as sleep apnea you are also at risk. Some groups are more at risk than others, including men aged 25 and younger, shift workers, commercial drivers, business travelers, those who drive at night, and anyone who has worked 60 hours that week.
Prevent drowsy driving by planning ahead. Get adequate sleep the night before. Try to travel long distances with a companion who can take turns driving and can help you stay alert with some good conversation. Plan enough time so you can take plenty of breaks – at least every 2 hours or 100 miles on long trips. Avoid alcohol and sedating medications while driving.
While you are driving if you are yawning, constantly blinking, or find your head nodding those are signs that you are drowsy. Mentally you may not remember driving the last few miles, you may feel irritable, or experience wandering, dream-like thoughts. You may drift in your lane or even hit the side rumble strip.
If you experience any of these symptoms Stop and Rest! Even a twenty minute nap can hold drowsiness off for a while. You can also use the alerting effects of caffeine. A good plan is to pull over, drink a caffeinated drink and take a 20 minute nap. Because it takes about 30 minutes to feel the effects of caffeine this plan will provide the benefits of both the nap and caffeine. (Be aware that caffeine is less effective in people who regularly drink a lot of it).
Safe summer travels!