National Drowsy Driving Prevention Week By Victoria S. Brkovich, MD

We are currently in the middle of National Drowsy Driving Prevention Week (November 6-12, 2011), which is an annual public awareness campaign from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

Since over half of us admit to having driven while drowsy at some point (NSF Sleep in America poll 2009), our initial reaction may be to question the significance of prevention.  It is hard to argue with the numbers.

Last year, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released a study showing the pervasiveness and morbid effect of drowsy driving. This study showed that drowsy driving involves approximately:

  • one in six deadly crashes;
  • one in eight crashes resulting in hospitalization;
  • one in fourteen crashes in which a vehicle was towed.

According to the study, younger drivers age 16-24 were nearly twice as likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash as drivers age 40-59, and about 57 percent of drowsy driving crashes involved the driver drifting into other lanes or even off the road.

So, who is most at risk and why? Well, anyone who drives is at risk of falling asleep at the wheel, but the following groups of people are more at risk than others:

1)      Young drivers – Combining inexperience with sleepiness and a tendency to drive at night puts young people at risk, especially males aged 16-25 years.

2)      Solo drivers on long road trips – The same Traffic Safety study above found that vehicles in which the driver was accompanied by a passenger were nearly 50 percent less likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash.

3)      Shift workers and people working long hours – People who work night shifts, rotating shifts, double shifts or work more than one job have a six-fold increase in drowsy driving crashes.

4)      Business travelers – Frequent travelers crossing time zones, suffering from jet lag, or spending long hours behind the wheel, may get too little sleep.

5)      Commercial drivers – Those who drive a high number of miles and drive at night are at significantly higher risk for fall-asleep crashes. Commercial drivers have also been found to be at a high risk for sleep disorders.

6)      People with untreated sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) – People with untreated OSA are up to seven times more likely to have a drowsy driving crash. For some people, drowsy driving is the most obvious indicator for the need to be evaluated by a physician for sleep problems such as sleep-disordered breathing.

Maybe you are unaware if you fall into one of these high risk categories.  Awareness is still critical, as most people are not very good at predicting when they are about to fall asleep.  Here are key warning signs that indicate that it’s time to stop driving and find a safe place to pull over and address your condition:

  • Feeling restless, irritable, or aggressive
  • Turning up the radio or rolling down the window
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Frequent blinking or heavy eyelids
  • Trouble keeping your head up
  • Frequent daydreaming and wandering thoughts
  • Yawning repeatedly
  • Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven
  • Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating, or hitting rumble strips
  • Missing exits or traffic signs

If you experience any of these, pull over immediately at a safe place, switch drivers, take a short nap, consume caffeine or find a place to sleep for the night.

The below list is a set of “Do’s and Don’t’s” from the National Sleep Foundation to help you prevent drowsy driving.  If you continue to notice drowsiness, please find time for a  consultation with your physician.

DON’T

• Drive if you are tired or on medication that may cause drowsiness. (Check medication labels and speak to your doctor)

• Rely on the radio, an open window or other tricks to keep you awake.

• Drive at times when you would normally be sleeping.

• Drink even a small amount of alcohol, especially if you are sleepy.

DO

• Get a good night’s sleep before a long drive.

• Get off the road if you notice any of the warning signs of fatigue.

• Take a nap – find a safe place to take a 15 to 20-minute nap.

• Consume caffeine – the equivalent of 2 cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hours, but DO NOT rely on it for long periods.

• Try consuming caffeine before taking a short nap to get the benefits of both.

• Drive with a friend. A passenger who remains awake can help watch for signs of fatigue in the driver and can take a turn driving, if necessary.

• Take a break every 100 miles or 2 hours.  Do something to refresh yourself like getting a snack, switching drivers, or going for a run.

• Always wear your seatbelt.

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