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The Real Risks of Drowsy Driving

By Frederick Schenk – published in the Legal Examiner

Most people are familiar with the terms “driving under the influence” and “driving while intoxicated” and the very serious – often fatal – repercussions they can have. But some may not be aware of another common driving condition considered just as dangerous: driving while drowsy. Drowsiness can impair judgment and reaction times while behind the wheel of the car. In fact various studies show that being awake for more than 20 hours results in impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths. Many officials believe these numbers are actually higher making driving while drowsy an extremely serious public safety issue.

We’re all tired, but how do we know if we’re a road risk?
There are specific symptoms and actions that may occur if the urge to nod off at the wheel becomes overwhelming and imminent. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), drivers should pay careful attention to:

• Frequent yawning or blinking and deep shallow breaths
• Difficulty remember the past few miles driven
• Eyes getting heavy, nodding off and jerking awake
• Loosening the grip on the wheel
• Missing your exit
• Hitting a rumble strips on the center lane

During a long drive it’s likely that at some point, sleepiness make become an issue. There are preventative tricks and tips you can try, such as stopping and stretching every few hours, sharing the driving and drinking lots of water. But if any of the above symptoms start to appear, it’s time to pull over safely, move into the passenger seat and take a power nap. Once you’re fully awake, walk around the car a few times to refocus.

Shift workers are one of the most at risk drivers because natural sleep patterns are disrupted by long nights and irregular hours. For this reason the NHTSA’s “Wake Up And Get Some Sleep” campaign provides educational brochures, tips and workplace posters for employers whose employees run the risk of leaving for home while already feeling the sleepy effects of a long shift ending at an irregular time of day.

How can we combat the risk of driving while drowsy?
The obvious answer is to get some sleep! But let’s face it – our lives are busy, and eight hours of sleep is not always an option. Our babies cry all night. We toss and turn from stress. We work crazy hours. Unfortunately the results of all this non-sleep may mean putting yourself and others at risk the next day while driving to and from work or school.

The Mayo Clinic gives these tips for a better night’s sleep:

1. Stick to a schedule
2. Pay attention to what you eat and drink
3. Create a bedtime ritual
4. Get comfortable
5. Limit daytime naps
6. Include physical activity in your daily routine
7. Manage stress

What’s being done?

Because driving while drowsy is becoming such a wide spread problem, many systems are in place and being developed to help drivers. Some auto manufacturers have installed voice alarms and vibrating seats to alert the driver before he/she nods off. Other manufacturers are working on other new alerts like emitting puffs of air on the driver’s neck, vibrating steering wheels and auto steering that takes over if the driver begins to drift into another lane.

On the not-so-technical side, many roads and highways are equipped with rumble strips, the bumpy groaning loud section of the center of the road that is meant to awaken a drifting, sleepy driver. If your car even once heads over toward the rumble strip, this is a very good indication that it’s time to pull over and take a nap.

When we get into our cars nothing is more important than arriving at our destination safely. Eliminating drowsy drivers begins with prevention. Keeping on top of your sleep health, preventing over tiredness and knowing your personal sleepy signals are the best ways to prevent a driving while drowsy accident.

For more information on driving while drowsy, visit