It’s 1 a.m. You debated all day about how good of an idea it would be to drive all night to get to West Palm Beach, but the advantages of taking the chance won out: you’d beat the traffic, and the time you’d save by getting there by early morning would make the challenge of pulling an all-nighter worth it. So now you’re on a highway, quite alone and in pitch darkness. The road is straight and monotonous. You start to count the mile markers out of boredom. After an hour and a half, things start to look blurry. A hazy veil starts to descend slowly over your eyes and upon your brain. You realize what is happening, and you shake your head violently to become more alert. You roll down the windows, but the Florida late spring night air bathes your car interior with humid heat. You crank your car stereo up to eleven. Passing sign says, “rest stop, 40 miles.” You push on, propelled by your determination and time. You sing loudly to the Def Leppard song playing on the only rock and roll station you can find on this desolate stretch of road. Soon, however, without realizing it, you gradually become silent. You feel yourself giving in despite yourself. You suddenly find yourself parked in the rest stop, but for the life of you you cannot recall how you got there.
Many of us (myself included) have been in this situation before. You would not believe the stories I hear from some of my patients, who have fallen asleep behind the wheel of their 18-wheelers, behind the wheel of their school buses, or at the controls of their motorcycles on the freeway. It should frighten you to know that many many thousands of people in the United States drive drowsy, including right next to you, every day.
Here are some sobering statistics.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 100,000 police-reported motor vehicle accidents occur in the United States each year due to drowsiness; this number is likely an underestimation of the total number of fall-asleep car crashes in this country, because undoubtedly there are many accidents (particularly single-car crashes) that are never reported. Due to these 100,000 crashes, roughly 40,000 injuries occur every year, and 1,550 people die per year.
According to an NHTSA-sponsored telephone survey report entitled “National Survey of Distracted and Drowsy Driving Attitudes and Behaviors,” 37% of drivers polled have nodded off for at least a moment or fallen asleep while driving at least once in their lives while driving; 8% have fallen asleep driving within the past six months. Falling asleep behind the wheel appears most common among drivers age 21-29 and males, and least common among drivers over age 64 and females.
71% of 18-29 year-olds have reported being drowsy while driving. 50% of 30-64 year-olds have reported being drowsy while driving.
It makes sense that people are found to be most likely to fall asleep driving in the early morning hours, particularly 2-7 a.m. People are also particularly at risk after having driven for long periods of time (3-4 hours or more) or if they are sleep-deprived (i.e., under 6 hours of sleep) the night prior to driving. Paradoxically, the faster people drive, the statistically more likely they will become involved in a fall-asleep car crash, presumably because unlike in-city driving with all its starts and stops, highway driving is continuous, sedentary, and monotonous, making one predisposed to drowsiness prone to head-bobbing and dozing at exactly the time in which being alert is the most necessary.
You’ve probably heard that drowsy driving is every bit as dangerous as drunk driving. I would go one step further and say that drowsy driving is in some ways more dangerous than drunk driving, simply because there are just so many drowsy drivers out there all the time, particularly at night, but also during the day.
So, some simple tips to reduce your likelihood of falling asleep behind the wheel:1. Get proper amounts of sleep each night, and particularly the night before a trip. 2. Avoid driving, particularly long distances, late at night if you can possibly help it. 3. If you HAVE to drive late at night, bring a driving buddy. Consider coffee or a caffeine-containing energy drink. Some rest stops have free coffee to prevent drowsy driving, but don’t count on coffee being available to you in this way. Be prepared. 4. Take a break frequently, even if you’re not drowsy. Find rest stops, pull over, get some fresh air, walk about. 5. Pull over and take a nap if you have to, and lock your car doors. Better to show up late than to show up dead. 6. NEVER, EVER operate a vehicle or machinery if you’re drowsy or fatigued. Period.