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Drive alert and arrive alive

November 13, 2014

The streets and highways will be busier than usual for the next couple of months as people travel more to visit with friends and relatives for Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season.

All the partying and shopping means there will be more tired people behind the driver’s wheel, increasing the risk for deadly accidents.

"Drowsy driving is as dangerous as driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It’s a killer, plain and simple," said Dr. Ronald Gross, chief, Trauma, Acute Care Surgery, and Surgical Critical Care, Baystate Medical Center.

Drowsy Driving Prevention Week

In an effort to reduce the number of fatigue-related crashes and to save lives, the National Sleep Foundation has declared Nov. 2-9 as Drowsy Driving Prevention Week. The annual campaign provides public education about the under-reported risks of diving while drowsy and countermeasures to improve safety on the road.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths.

According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America poll:

  • 60% of adult drivers – about 168 million people – say they have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year
  • 37%  of adult drivers – about 103 million people – have actually fallen asleep at the wheel. Of those who have nodded off, 13% say they have done so at least once a month. 4% – approximately 11 million drivers – admit they have had an accident or near accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive.

Who is at risk?

Dr. Gross said drowsy driving can happen anytime of the day depending on your fatigue level.

"Many people don’t realize just how tired they are sometimes before getting into the driver’s seat. It is easy to become lulled into a comfort zone and fall asleep behind the wheel, especially on longer drives when there tends to be less stimulation," said Dr. Gross.

Over his long career as a trauma surgeon, he has seen the devastating results of drowsy driving in the emergency departments where he has treated patients.

Bus, truck, and other commercial drivers are most at risk for drowsy driving. People taking medications, shift workers, and people with more than one job or irregular work hours are also at risk.

The risk is especially high for teenagers who only get about seven hours of sleep each night, well short of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommended 9.2 hours.

"If you find yourself falling asleep on the road, don’t try to continue, pull over onto the side of the highway and put your emergency flashers on. Once sufficiently revived for the moment, drive to the next exit and find a place to take a nap," said Dr. Gross.

The Baystate trauma chief recommends taking a break every two hours during a long drive.

"Even a 15-20 minute nap at a rest stop can refresh you," Dr. Gross said.

Tips to avoid drowsy driving

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, rolling down the car windows or tuning up the volume on the radio will do little to increase your alertness while driving.

They suggest the following better ways to avoid drowsy driving:

  • Get a full night of seven to eight hours of sleep before driving.
  • Avoid drinking late at night.
  • Avoid driving alone.
  • On a long trip, share the driving with another passenger.
  • Pull over at a rest stop and take a nap.
  • Use caffeine for a short-term boost, it is known to increase alertness for several hours.
  • Arrange for someone to give you a ride home after working a late shift.

Risk to those with sleeping disorders

Many people with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy are at a greater risk for drowsy driving, noted Dr. Karin Johnson, sleep specialist in the Division of Neurology at Baystate Medical Center.

"For people who are very sensitive to light, the decrease in evening light may make them feel more tired. And, as the days get shorter and shorter, people tend to be more tired," Dr. Johnson said.

More than half of all Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder.

For most adults, 7-8 hours a night is recommended to achieve good health and optimum performance. Children in pre-school should sleep between 11-13 hours a night. School-aged children should get between 10-11 hours of sleep a night. Teenagers, on average, require about nine or more hours of sleep each night.

"If you often have difficulty sleeping or you fall asleep during the day, talk to your physician about being evaluated for a possible sleep disorder," Dr. Johnson said.