On November 5-11, 2007 the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) is launching the first annual Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, a national campaign to educate young drivers (and everyone else on the road) about the dangers of driving while sleepy, as well as other unsafe driving practices.
I don't need to tell everyone that our society functions at a 24 hour a day, seven days a week pace. We are much busier in this day and age, and as a result we're sleeping less and less. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine suggested that people tend to overestimate their sleep time by an hour, on average. In addition to the demand we place on ourselves to function on minimal sleep, the demands of 24/7 work calendar forces many people to perform shift work, disrupting their normal internal body clock and making it difficult for them to stay awake during their awkwardly timed shifts.
Let's talk some numbers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that there are 56,000 crashes yearly due to driver drowsiness, with 40,000 nonfatal and 1,550 fatal injuries as a result. However, it is well known that statistics underreport the true amount of these crashes because of the many cases in which the driver denies fatigue, or their level of function was not known before the accident. The NSF reports that 11 million drivers admit to an accident or near accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive. NSF surveys also report that half of Americans confess to drowsy driving and almost 20% say they have actually fallen asleep at the wheel during the past year.
Another recent study showed that even a small amount of alcohol combined with an extended wake time (18-21 hours) caused a driving impairment worse than an alcohol level that has been shown to increase accident risk.
Who is most at risk? Usually young people, especially young men. A report from 1995 found that drivers younger than 30 accounted for almost two-thirds of the drowsy driving related accidents, despite the fact that they only represent about one quarter of licensed drivers.
There is no evidence to show that short stints of exercise, listening to the radio, opening the windows, chewing gum, or any other home remedies help. By the way, talking on a cell phone won't help either. Some techniques that might be helpful are napping before starting the drive, breaking for a 15-20 minute nap after the drive has begun, or having caffeine (equivalent to 2 cups of coffee). These measures have shown to improve performance even in sleep deprived people.
Drowsy Driving Prevention week is aimed at young people, but their parents need to take a lead in this as well. We are all aware of the need for a designated driver when we drink, but what about for the times when we are exhausted? How about having teens call a parent (with impunity!) for a ride when they are tired, not just when they've had too much to drink? This is something which should be near and dear to all of us, because we never know who else is out on the road and driving while sleepy. Please drive safely and arrive alive (and in good shape)!
For more information about the Drowsy Driving Prevention campaign, go to http://www.drowsydriving.org/. For more general information about drowsy driving see the NHTSA statement at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/drowsy_driving1/drowsy.html#Figure%202.
Published On: October 22, 2007