Driving drowsy as dangerous as driving drunk, studies show
November 9th, 2011
07:31 AM ET

Driving drowsy as dangerous as driving drunk, studies show

Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She blogs regularly on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.

We all know the symptoms. Your eyelids droop and your vision becomes blurry. Your head feels so heavy that you can’t hold it up and so your chin keeps falling toward your chest. You can’t stop yawning. Diagnosis is clear to most of us: You’re sleepy.

I know what it feels like and looks like and so do you. So why do many surveys show that most of us have driven while drowsy and many of us do so on a regular basis?

Well, for one thing, we are not a culture that takes sleep seriously. We think that when our lives become so busy that we don’t see how we can fit everything into a 24-hour day, that we can find extra hours by carving it out of our sleep time.

Many surveys over the past four to five decades show a steady decline in the number of hours that people are sleeping. You add to that an increase in shift work and an increase in sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, which is increasing in parallel with the rising weight of the average American, and you have one sleep-deprived nation, one whose citizens drive on a daily basis.

This week is Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, and numerous organizations such as the National Sleep Foundation and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety are trying to get this topic before the American people.

A recent poll conducted by the AAA Foundation echoed the results of numerous National Sleep Foundation Polls, namely that a large percentage of Americans report driving under the influence of sleep.

In this latest poll, one-third of those surveyed admitted to driving drowsy in the past 30 days. A 2005 NSF poll of approximately 1,000 people found that 60% of drivers, or about 168 million people, admitted that they had driven while sleepy in the preceding year; and 37% confessed that they had actually fallen asleep behind the wheel.

Educating people to the dangers of drowsy driving is a key step in prevention. For example, did you know that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 crashes that are reported to the police each year are the direct result of fatigue and sleepiness? And that is a conservative estimate because it is hard to pin down how many crashes are due to drowsiness.

Drowsy driving is hard to quantify for a number of reasons. One, because there is no standard test to determine driver fatigue as there is with drunken driving. Two, fatigue-related crashes usually occur when someone is driving alone. Three, a grisly feature of crashes associated with sleepiness is that they are often fatal.

Investigators have figured out that a crash due to fatigue often shows no skid marks or signs that the driver tried to correct the course of the vehicle as they see with crashes due to intoxication.

Speaking of intoxication, numerous studies have shown that sleepiness can impair driving skill s as much as being drunk. In fact, being awake for 20 hours straight makes the average driver perform as poorly as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%, now the legal limit in all states.

We suspect that sleepiness combined with drunkenness is a particularly deadly combination. No surprise, those most likely to drive while drowsy are young people, age 18-29, especially men, and this is the age group involved in the greatest number of traffic accidents. Other groups of people who report driving drowsy are shift workers, commercial drivers and adults with children in the household.

Tips to avoid driving drowsy:

1. Recognize that sleep is an essential component of health and try to get the seven to eight hours each night that most people need.

2. Get treatment for sleep disorders such as insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy.

3. Avoid driving between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. when the urge to sleep is the strongest. Also be aware of the afternoon slump. Crashes due to fatigue also often occur between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. during the circadian dip in alertness.

4. Although caffeine is no substitute for a good night’s sleep, it can help alertness. So if you don’t suffer from insomnia or have a medical condition that is aggravated by caffeine, then by all means reach for a strong cup of joe when you must drive and you know that you are not your most alert.

5. Pull over. If you are having the symptoms of sleepiness, do not assume you can control the urge. Many have done so with deadly consequences for themselves and fellow travelers. Find a safe place and try to take a 10-20 minute nap. Studies have shown that shorter naps result in greater alertness and better performance.

6. Avoid driving alone for great distances especially in the middle of the night.

7. Take a break every two hours if you are driving long distances as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation

8. Parents, please, talk to your children, and especially your teens who have started driving, about the dangers of driving while drowsy.

Ninety-six percent of those polled by the AAA Foundation feel that it is “unacceptable” for people to drive while they have trouble keeping their eyes open. Yet, only one state makes it illegal to drive while knowingly fatigued. “Maggie’s Law “ was enacted in New Jersey after the 1997 death of Maggie McDonnell, a college student killed when a driver, who admitted to being awake for 30 straight hours, crashed into her car.

Drowsy driving is deadly and it is about time we take it seriously.

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Filed under: Sleep

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