As a mother of three children, I’ve spent many of nights awake for hours taking care of a sick child and then had to push through the day as I went to work. Drowsy driving concerns me. I have stopped on occasion to get a large cup of coffee with extra shots of espresso to get me through those rough days. But, I pause now and really try to at least get a nap as I see what horrific effects that drowsy driving can cause…
Before you scoff at the notion that you’d ever get behind the wheel when you’re feeling tired, consider this: 60% of the drivers have done so in the past year. And it’s not all that surprising, consider 43 percent of American teens and adults say that it is rare to get a good night’s sleep on weeknights, according to the National Sleep Foundation. A recent study published in the journal Sleep adds troubling figures to this issue: People who have difficulty falling asleep — the classic symptom of insomnia — were more than twice as likely to die from a motor vehicle injury. And in another study, typical alertness-boosting tactics like turning up the radio proved not all that effective.
Drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths. As tragic as these numbers are, they only tell a portion of the story. It is widely recognized that drowsy driving is underreported as a cause of crashes. And this doesn’t include incidents caused by driver inattention. (http://www.nhtsa.gov/Driving+Safety/Distracted+Driving+at+Distraction.gov/Research+on+Drowsy+Driving)
The Today Show did a recent investigation report on drowsy driving in light of the tragedies this nation has seen recently. Last June, a truck driver for Wal-Mart struck a car carrying Tracy Morgan, seriously injuring the comedian and killing his close friend. According to police, the driver of the truck had been awake for over 24 hours, at the time of the crash. On Jan. 26, 2008, Virginia Tech University freshman Nicole Lee was killed as she returned to campus after a day of skiing with four friends when the 1999 Nissan Pathfinder they were in hit a tree head-on in West Virginia. State police said alcohol or excessive speed were not factors in the crash and that they believed the driver was asleep at the wheel at the time of the accident. “There were no skid marks or [signs of] braking; [the driver] hit a tree on my sister’s side of the car at full speed,” said Jennifer Pearce, Nicole’s older sister. “My sister was an amazing young woman full of life, and she was taken from us instantaneously.” Today Nicole’s family educates drivers on the dangers of drowsy driving.
To demonstrate the danger, NBC national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen tested his skill on a technical obstacle course at the Skip Barber Driving School in Lakeville, Connecticut. First he drove the course while rested and wide awake, pulling off tight turns and last-minute lane changes without hitting a single traffic cone. Then Rossen went home and kept himself awake for nearly 30 hours before returning to tackle the course again. Though tired, he said, “Actually, I feel fine. I feel like this is the kind of situation that a lot of people drive in. Maybe I could too.” But this time Rossen failed the course badly, hitting traffic cones — each one simulating a crash — over and over again.
Dr. Charles Czeisler of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of the country’s leading authorities on sleep, analyzed video of Rossen’s driving tests. “It’s a dramatic difference,” Czeisler said of the second test. “He’s certainly impaired and is struggling to stay awake, and at any moment could lose that struggle.” Just a few moments of what experts call micro-sleep could be the difference between life and death, Czeisler explained. “Most people don’t realize that part of the brain can be asleep while another part of the brain is awake. So you may be able to keep your foot full throttle on the accelerator and even negotiate certain turns and yet not have the judgment area of the brain engaged.”In a final test, a fatigued Rossen began driving for several miles, simulating a long highway trip. When he encountered an unexpected line of cones on his final lap, he was unable to avoid them.
“That could have been a car,” Rossen said. “That could have been a person. It’s scary.”
Doctors warn that losing sleep for one night is the equivalent of being legally drunk. And experts say the best indicator that you’re about to fall asleep at the wheel is actually having it happen: Many drivers have experienced a moment when they feel themselves nodding off, then jolt awake and get a false sense of security, once their adrenaline is going, that they’re good to drive. But doctors say you’re likely to nod off again within minutes.