Asleep At the Wheel
Drowsy driving kills and injures thousands, but is preventable
Simply, a tired driver is a dangerous driver. Sleepiness slows reaction time, decreases awareness, impairs judgment and increases aggressiveness. If that sounds familiar, it should — you've heard the same warnings about driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Just like driving drunk or drugged, drowsy driving causes you to make mistakes behind the wheel — mistakes that can injure or kill the driver, passengers or total strangers.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsiness or fatigue is the principal cause of up to 100,000 police-reported passenger vehicle crashes every year, killing at least 1,500 people and injuring 71,000. Many more fatigue-related crashes go unreported. But don't blame it on the long-haul truckers: Less than 1 percent of all sleep-related crashes involve truck drivers, who are prohibited, by federal regulation, from driving more than 10 hours in a 24-hour period.
In 2003, New Jersey passed Maggie's Law, named after a 20-year-old college student killed by a drowsy driver. The law states that a sleep-deprived driver qualifies as a reckless driver who can be convicted of vehicular homicide and serve jail time. While most states don't have such a law on the books, the dangers of drowsy driving are now getting more attention.
Signs of drowsy driving
A recent NHTSA study showed that 20 percent of crashes and 12 percent of near-crashes were caused by drowsy drivers, said Dr. Charlie Klauer, the study's project manager and a senior research associate at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
How did the researchers determine a driver was drowsy? Each of 100 vehicles was outfitted with five cameras that linked to computers to record driver action and reaction. NHTSA monitored the drivers for more than one year and nearly 2 million miles of driving. Researchers determined that the drivers were drowsy if their eyes closed for longer than a blink, or if their heads bobbed forward and then bolted back upright. Also making the cut were drivers who didn't move at all, staring fixedly ahead instead of reacting to oncoming traffic or checking the rearview or sideview mirrors.
How time, age and work schedule affect drowsiness
Surprisingly, the study showed that the majority of crashes and near-crashes occur during daytime hours, when roads are more crowded, rather than at night. But sleep-related accidents at night tend to be more serious because they are more likely to occur on high-speed highways and rural roads, when the driver is alone.
Among the groups studied, all the age groups had the same percentage of drowsy-driving crashes and near-crashes, except for one. "The 18-20 age group was involved in five times more fatigue-related accidents and near-accidents than any other group," she said, due to inexperience behind the wheel and irregular sleep habits.
It's not just age, it's work schedule. An AAA Foundation study, based on interviews with drivers after crashes, indicated that drowsy drivers were nearly twice as likely to work at more than one job and their primary job was much more likely to involve non-standard hours. Working the night shift increased the odds of a sleep-related accident by nearly six times.
Additionally, Klauer said, many people are commuting much longer now, increasing the number of drowsy-driving incidents.
Allergy, cold and flu medicines
Dr. Joel Zive, an independent pharmacist in Bronx, New York, and a spokesman for the American Pharmacists Association, cautions consumers to read their medication labels for a warning about ingredients that cause drowsiness — or ask the pharmacist. Many drivers still don't realize that legal, over-the-counter treatments for allergies, cold and flu can cause significant sleepiness at the wheel.
For example, the antihistamines Dipenhydramine (in Benadryl), Clorpheniramine (in Clor-Trimeton) and Brompheniramine (in Diamatine) can cause drowsiness. But, the so-called second-generation antihistamines Fexofenadine (in Allegra), Loratadine (in Claritin and Alavert) and Cetirizine (in Zyrtec) are non-sedating and do not cause impairment under normal circumstances, Dr. Zive said.
How to avoid falling asleep at the wheel
Here are the top 10 things to do to avoid falling asleep at the wheel, from the AAA Foundation and the University of Iowa:
- Stop driving if you feel sleepy. Stop and drink a caffeinated beverage.
- Since it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream and take effect, use that time to take a nap.
- Get plenty of sleep the night before taking a long trip — at least six hours, though more is better.
- Don't plan to work all day and then drive all night.
- Drive at times when you are normally awake, and stay overnight in a hotel or motel rather than driving straight through.
- Avoid driving at so-called sleepy times of day. Take a midafternoon break for a short nap and find a place to sleep between midnight and dawn. If you can't nap, at least stop your drive and rest for awhile.
- Avoid carbohydrate-laden foods that can make you sleepy, in favor of protein-laden foods.
- Avoid allergy and cold or flu medications containing Diphenhydramine, such as Benadryl, which can contribute to drowsiness. And don't take prescribed sleep aids, such as Ambien, until you are finished driving for the day.
- On long trips, keep an awake passenger in the front seat. Increasing the volume on the car stereo is not a substitute for somebody you can talk to.
- Take a break every two hours or every 100-120 miles, even if you don't need a pit stop or gas. Get out of the car, take some deep breaths and do some stretching exercises, especially neck and shoulders, to relieve cramping and stress. And try to set a limit of 300-400 miles of driving per day.
When to take a break
In 2004, an AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey found that nine out of every 10 North American police officers had stopped a driver who they believed was drunk, but turned out to be drowsy instead. Johns Hopkins Medical Center says drivers should be aware of these warning signs:
- You can't remember the last few miles driven.
- You hit a rumble strip or drift from your lane.
- You keep pulling your vehicle back into the lane.
- Your thoughts are wandering and disconnected.
- You yawn repeatedly.
- You have difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open and your head up.
- You tailgate or miss traffic signs.
- You have narrowly missed crashing.