Drowsy Driving – Steer Clear of this Growing Danger
by Marcia Simon, APR
More people today sleep less than they should, turning to sleep aids and caffeine stimulants, believing they can multitask their way through the day without missing a beat. When it comes to driving – bad idea.
Ask any high school or college student if they get enough sleep on a regular basis, and there’s a good chance they’ll laugh it off, believing it’s just not possible with their workload. This comes at a time when their biological need for sleep increases. Adults, generally, are not much better, burning the candle at both ends of the day.
Adults and teenagers who sleep less than seven hours a night have slower reaction times. They’re not as attentive, with minimized ability to make good road decisions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Getting behind the wheel of a car when you’re tired or sleep-deprived can be as dangerous as driving after drinking or while texting. The difference is that it often goes undetected because sleep deprivation doesn’t show up in a blood test or breathalyzer. Nor can you find tangible evidence like an unfinished text message after a crash. The difficulty in detecting drowsiness as the cause of a traffic accident makes drowsy driving one of the most underreported traffic safety issues.
In February 2018, the AAA (American Automobile Association) Foundation for Traffic Safety reported in-depth drowsy driving research using dashcam footage, and found the percentage of crashes involving drowsiness is nearly eight times higher than federal estimates indicate. In the study, researchers examined video of more than 700 drivers’ faces in the three minutes leading up to a crash. Using a scientific measure that determined their level of drowsiness, researchers determined that about 10 percent all car crashes involved drowsiness.
How drowsy is too drowsy to drive?
The American Sleep Association cites as many as 70 million American adults with a sleep disorder, about 40% of whom unintentionally fell asleep during the day at least once in the preceding month, and about 5% reporting nodding off while driving at least once in the past month.
People who work night shifts or unusually long or double shifts, and people who have undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorders such as apnea are at higher risk than most. Combined with side effects of sleep-aid medications, alcohol and marijuana, drowsy driving is a pretty scary thought.
Get adequate sleep
Although many people feel they can get by on less than the minimum recommended seven hours of sleep each night, science shows that sleep, and lack of it, affects hormones, mood, weight, mental acuity, and overall healthy aging.
Don’t underestimate the power of a quick nap or meditation during the day.
If you’re exhausted, it’s not the time to start a long drive. Stop for breaks. Take a quick nap in a rest area or get up and walk around. A strong cup of coffee will help for a short time, but the caffeine effect wears off and can leave you feeling even more tired.
Being awake for 18 hours straight makes you drive like you have a blood alcohol level of .05 (.08 is considered the legal limit for DUI – driving under the influence – in the United States.) If you’ve been awake for a full 24 hours and drive, it’s like you have a blood alcohol level of .10, according to guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve pulled an all-nighter; it could be a few nights of insomnia, tossing and turning because you’ve got a lot on your mind, or perhaps pain that keeps you awake, a sleep disorder, or a young child that needs your attention in the middle of the night.
Self-help for better sleep and safer driving
To help drivers determine if their medications may cause drowsiness, AAA and the AAA Foundation developed Roadwise Rx, a free and confidential online tool that shows potential interactions between prescription, over-the-counter medicines and herbal supplements, and how they may contribute to drowsy driving.
For restless sleepers who have no idea how much quality sleep time they log each night, EMFIT QS (Quantified Sleep) is a monitoring system that uses highly sensitive sensors built into a pad that slides under your mattress, to automatically track your nightly hours of light, deep and REM sleep, as well as awake time vs. actual sleep time while in bed. Heart rate, breathing rate, heart rate variability (for athletic training) and other metrics are also captured. EMFIT is used in Europe for home sleep studies, and has been used in clinical trials to detect obstructive sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.
If you feel spaced out during the day, if you’re driving around and actually forget where you are or what exit you just passed (yes, it happens and is not uncommon), and if you find yourself drifting over your lane boundaries, you may be experiencing drowsy driving. Take a break. Get some fresh air, and make it a point to get your sleep habits back on track.