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Drowsy driving dangers: One-third of Americans have fallen asleep at the wheel

drowsy driving dangers Stay alert. Arrive alive.

This is the Drowsy Driving Prevention week slogan and with over 1,500 Americans dying in accidents directly caused by driver fatigue annually, it remains an essential message.

According to a 2005 National Sleep Foundation study, more than one-third of American drivers have actually fallen asleep at the wheel.  But why is drowsy driving so common? And what can be done to prevent it?

To learn more, spoke to Dr. Philip Rhoades, director of the Social Science Research Center at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi. Rhoades is on a mission with a Safe Communities Project to prevent drowsy driving and he teaches his students and the public about the dangers as well as offering life-saving tips.

Q. Who is the most at risk from drowsy driving?

A. People that drive for a living, such as commercial drivers or truck drivers.

The other groups include college students that stay up late and people who work night shifts, such as medical professionals and law enforcement.

Genetically, humans are programmed to be awake during the daylight hours and sleep at night. So it’s an abnormal condition to work all night.

Another category is older people. Older people may need a longer period of sleep because of the aging effects on their bodies. They may also have a chronic condition or a medication that the elderly use that causes a drowsiness in the driving.

Another risk category is anyone who is diagnosed with or has an undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorder, like narcolepsy or sleep apnea.  

Q. What are the classic signs that you're driving tired?

A.If you notice impaired reaction time, judgment or vision, can't keep your eyes open, drift from your lane, yawn often, or have trouble focusing, you are likely drowsy. Those things may not be noticeable to the driver which is why they’re problematic.

Another sign is micro sleep, which is when the driver simply begins to nod off – these sleeps typically last one to three seconds. You are beginning to take a nap then you shake yourself and wake back up.

Q. Can people fight off a micro sleep?

A.People believe they can but they really can’t. The only cure for sleep deprivation is sleep.

Now changing the body chemistry can help. Getting out of the car at a rest stop or a gas station, walking around – this is a change in your body chemistry and it will keep you awake a little better.

If you’re driving long-distance, it’s recommended that you stop at least every 2 hours and walk around or take a short “power nap.”

Another thing that changes body chemistry is adding caffeine, such as a strong 8 ounce cup of coffee (which has 100 milliliters of caffeine) or a 48 ounce soda. However, the effects of caffeine will wear off after a while.

Q. Do you feel that drowsy driving is comparable to drunk or drugged driving in terms of how many accidents and death it causes?

A. (Drowsy driving) can be similar to (drugged or drunk driving) in terms of the effect on the driver.

If you’re intoxicated on either alcohol or drugs, this can lead to drowsiness. The use of a medication, the use of an illegal drug or the use of alcohol can make one sleepy and drowsy.

These drivers aren’t very good at controlling the vehicle. However, if a drunk or drugged driver starts to drive off the road, they will eventually react and swerve, or brake. However, if a drowsy driver drives off the road at 70 miles an hour, they won’t be able to react at all and will crash into the tree.

So drowsy driving can be more deadly than drug driving as a drowsy driver isn’t controlling the car at all.

Let’s say this: If you fall asleep, your vehicle goes where it wants to go.

Q. If you get into a car accident because you fell asleep at the wheel, would your insurance company consider this an at-fault crash?

A. I suspect that law enforcement would. As an operator of a motor vehicle, it’s your responsibility to keep yourself attentive and focused on driving. And so if you permitted drowsiness, like if you decide to take drugs or drink, and then decide to drive – it’s your responsibility.

Q. What are the best ways for drivers to prevent drowsy driving?

A. Before a trip, get a good night’s sleep – plan to get at least eight hours.

Plan ahead – schedule a break every hundred miles. Drink some caffeine during the trip. If possible, travel with a companion.

A good companion can watch you for signs of fatigue, can share driving if you get tired or can engage in non-distracting conversation that will keep you awake.

Before the trip, make sure you avoid drinking alcohol or taking any kind of sedating medications, such as decongestants and allergy medications. Travelling with companion is a good thing to do if that’s possible. You should avoid before and during the trip any kind of alcohol or sedating medications.

Q. Are there any new vehicle technologies that can help with the problem of drowsy driving?

A. Lane departure technology could help – the system starts beeping at you when you’re beginning to leave your lane or you’re getting to close to the car that’s next to you or coming up behind you.  

Q. What kind of safety and prevention measures would you like to see implemented to help prevent drowsy driving?

A.I’d like to see more advertising and presentations, such as brochures, YouTube videos – anything that raises public awareness about the dangers of drowsy driving and provides common sense tips to prevent it. 

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