Would you let a friend get behind the wheel of a car if he’d just been drinking and wasn’t steady on his feet? The answer is certainly “No.” But if you’re like most people in the US, you wouldn’t hesitate to let a friend drive when he’s incapacitated for another reason—drowsiness. It’s time to wake up to a danger that causes nearly 5,500 deaths a year.

Surprisingly, drowsy driving has gotten little attention compared with other driving dangers, including speeding, drinking alcohol, failing to fasten seat belts or being distracted by cell phones and other devices. That’s why the AAA’s recent campaign against drowsy driving caught my attention.

I phoned J. Peter Kissinger, head of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, who told me that, in his opinion, drowsy driving is the largest unrecognized problem on the highways. In a recent AAA survey of 2,000 drivers age 16 and older, 32% said that they had driven while on the verge of falling asleep at some point in their lives, and 41% admitted to actually falling asleep at the wheel at some point in their lives. And that’s despite the opinion of 96% that it’s unacceptable to drive while drowsy! So why don’t we practice what we preach?

Belts, Booze And Speed

The 96% have it right. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), drowsiness is very similar in its effects to drunkenness. It causes slower reaction times, vision impairment, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information. In fact, NSF, which has joined AAA in publicizing the problem, says that being awake for more than 20 consecutive hours results in impairment equal to that caused by a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, which is the legal limit for driving in all states. And if you’ve undergone stress or slept poorly the night before, you don’t have to be awake for even that long to experience this level of impairment.

So why are we just now learning about this? As Kissinger put it, traffic safety experts have focused on “belts, booze and speed” and more recently on distractions by cell phones and other electronic devices. Also, statistics, he said, have downplayed the role of drowsiness in fatal crashes because it’s often difficult for investigators to determine if the cause of a crash was drowsiness, drunkenness, distraction or a combination of factors—in other words, there’s no breathalyzer or blood test for drowsy driving. If a driver veers off the road and hits a tree, for instance, there’s often not any way to tell whether he fell asleep or instead was distracted when he tried to change the station on the radio.

As a result, US traffic statistics typically show that drowsiness is involved in only about 3.6% of fatal crashes, compared with more than 30% for alcohol. AAA has now recalculated the statistics by extrapolating data from accident reports and adjusting for unknown or missing data (like drowsiness). New calculations, Kissinger said, show that nearly 17% of fatal car crashes result from drowsy driving—that’s on a par with distracted driving, which is thought to account for 16% of crashes. Plus, he added, 60% of people who “nod off” at the wheel do so when driving for less than one hour. “Drowsy driving doesn’t just occur on a long trip,” he said. “It can also happen on a shorter trip, such as driving home after a date night with your significant other.”

Your Strategy For Safety

To prevent an accident caused by drowsiness, Kissinger urges us to…

  • Take a 30-minute break from driving every two hours or 100 miles to drink coffee or another caffeinated beverage. It takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream.
  • Sleep at least seven hours the night before a long trip.
  • If possible, travel with an alert and well-rested passenger who will help keep you awake.
  • Stay somewhere overnight instead of extending your drive time beyond the length of your typical day.

In addition, he said, besides the obvious case where you have trouble keeping your eyes open or your head up, you are too sleepy to drive when you…

  • Can’t remember how far you’ve traveled or what you’ve recently passed.
  • Find yourself tailgating or drifting out of your lane.
  • Daydream or have disconnected thoughts.
  • Often yawn or rub your eyes.
  • Miss signs or drive past your exit.
  • Veer off the road and hit the rumble strips on the shoulder.
  • Have to blast the radio and/or roll down the windows in an attempt to stay alert.

What can you say to friends who insist on driving drowsy? Try to talk them out of driving, and if possible, offer to drive them where they’re going. If that fails, take away their keys, and don’t be afraid if they become angry. They’ll likely thank you later on, Kissinger said, especially after you mention the statistics on fatalities caused by drowsy driving. A look at the stats will tell them that you may have saved their lives.

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