Driving Miss Drowsy

Most of us take driving for granted, but operating a motor vehicle is an extremely complex task requiring an intricate combination of mental and physical skills as well constant concentration. One thing is for certain, no responsible driver can afford to drive fatigued.

Driving fatigued can lead to poor judgment, slower reaction time and decreased driving-skill levels. Studies have shown that drowsy drivers can drift into what’s called a “micro-sleep,” a brief nap lasting 3 to 5 seconds. At 62 mph, that’s about the length of a football field and more than enough time to run into or tree or cross the center divider. Put simply, a sleep-deprived driver is a serious danger to himself and others.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, nearly 100,000 police-reported accidents each year are the result of drowsiness or fatigue. That accounts for 1.5 percent of all crashes. At least 71,000 people are injured in fall-asleep crashes each year and a conservative estimate of annual related fatalities is 1,500.

NHTSA estimates the monetary losses each year as a result of these crashes amounts to $12.5 billion. Mounting evidence suggests the numbers are much higher and new estimates are expected. Additional survey responses revealed:

89 percent of police officers agreed that drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving.
93 percent of police officers believed drowsy driving is a serious problem.
93 percent agreed that drowsy driving is a serious problem for passenger car drivers.
97 percent agreed that drowsy driving is a serious problem for commercial drivers.
95 percent agreed that drivers who cause a crash because they are fatigued should be charged with a driving violation.
96 percent agreed that more education is needed to inform drivers about the dangers of drowsy driving.

So how do you make sure you’re getting enough sleep so as not to be drowsy when you get behind the wheel?

Studies have shown that most people require about 7 ½ hours of sleep in order to be considered rested and alert. If you get fewer than 7 ½ hours, you are likely to be incurring what is called a “sleep debt.” While you don’t have to repay every hour of sleep you miss, the longer you go on adding to your sleep debt, the more likely you are to experience serious effects. One way to judge if you are in sleep debt is to add up the hours of sleep you get compared to when you can sleep as long as you want. The difference in the numbers is the sleep debt you are accumulating.

If you drive for a living, you should every opportunity on your days off to get a good long night of sleep. For example, if you’re getting 6 continuous hours you may be OK for a couple of days. But if you get less than that for about 3 or more days in a row, your driving performance could be as poor as if you were over the legal alcohol limit.

Most people who have a sleep debt don’t realize they are tired, so drowsiness can creep up on them. It’s time to pull over for a nap or a break if you experience any of the following danger signs:
  • You have trouble keeping your head up.
  • You have wandering, disconnected thoughts.
  • Your eyes close for a moment or go out of focus.
  • Your eyelids droop.
  • You can’t stop yawning.
  • You find that you can’t remember driving the last few miles.
  • You drift over the center line or onto the gravel at the side of the road.
  • You miss a road sign.
  • You miss your exit.
  • You miss a gear.
  • You start to see things that are not there.
  • You brake too late.
  • You find you have slowed unintentionally.

There is only one cure for fatigue. It’s sleep. If you feel sleepy while driving, get off the road.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, AAA.