Texting Drivers? Ask Tracy Morgan About Drowsy Drivers

I do a fair bit of driving.  I live in Seattle, home to long, crazy commutes.  You see a lot of stuff on Puget Sound highways:  multi-lane weavers, left-lane cruising taxi drivers, packs of wheelie-popping crotch-rocketers, hyper-caffeinated road-ragers.

Something that I see more and more of these days:  a Prius ahead of me, starting to hug those lane-dividing lines, slowly moving further and further to one side, followed by a quick correction back to the center of the lane, and then followed by another slow drift to the lane’s outer boundaries.  Then it rolls over some of those turtles on the side of the highway before it corrects yet again. I speed up to get away from this car and its impaired driver.  I look over as I pass, and sure enough:  the young driver is staring at his or her lap, poking furiously at a smart phone while putting everyone on the road at risk.

 

Everyone has seen these drivers on the road in recent years.  But another, more insidious problem has long lurked on our roads, something much less obvious than but just as dangerous as texting drivers:  drowsy drivers.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, roughly 100,000 motor vehicle accidents are reported to occur due to driver sleepiness/fatigue in the United States every year.  Those are just the reported accidents; there are likely thousands more that occur every year that are not reported.  A 2005 National Sleep Foundation poll revealed that 60% of American drivers reported driving while drowsy at least once in the previous year, and 37% fell asleep behind the wheel at least once in the previous year.

These basic statistics should make you concerned, not just because there are so many drowsy drivers out there, but because of how casually so many people routinely drive while sleepy.  They flirt with disaster every day by doing so.

Around 12:55 a.m. one late night in June 2014, a Wal-Mart truck crashed into a van carrying, among other people, the actor and comedian Tracy Morgan, killing one van occupant and critically injuring Morgan.  Earlier this week the National Transportation Safety Board announced its conclusion that driver fatigue likely played a role in the accident:  the truck driver reportedly had driven 800 miles throughout the night prior to the accident, and had been awake for more than 28 hours straight.  The driver, Kevin Roper, now has been charged with vehicular homicide.

What to do with truck driver fatigue is a difficult, complex, and emotionally and politically charged issue.  Work hours, industry culture, the need to “get there on time,” and financial issues all contribute to the debate regarding how to improve safety on our highways.  From a clinical perspective, however, I can tell you that a great many people–truck drivers or not–simply don’t sleep as long as their bodies require.  The substantial majority of adults require around 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and let’s be honest with ourselves, many of us don’t get that much on an average night.  One of the most common causes of daytime sleepiness is chronic sleep deprivation, which is associated all sorts of long-term and short-term consequences, from poor work performance to medical problems to fall-asleep car crashes.

For those who struggle to stay awake during the day and find themselves nodding off while they are driving despite getting proper amounts of sleep per night, consider informing your doctor and consider a sleep medicine evaluation.  There are many potential causes of excessive daytime sleepiness, including many sleep disorders.

Final word, which at this point is painfully obvious:  regardless of the cause, never drive if you’re drowsy!  Spare yourself the tragedy of injury and death, as well as the guilt stemming from having caused a fall-asleep car crash.

Have a safe weekend, everyone.

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Chicago O’Hare Train Accident Thought Related to Operator Sleepiness

You probably have heard by now about the recent commuter train derailment at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.  In the early morning of Monday, March 24, a Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) blue line train jumped its rails and crashed into an escalator, injuring more than 30 people.

 

It is so weird to see photos of such destruction in a place that I am so familiar with.

Anyhow, this morning it was announced that the train operator informed investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that she had fallen asleep at the controls before the accident.

Here is the surveillance video that captured the incident:

According to lead investigator Ted Turpin, the train operator indicated that she had “dozed off prior to entering the [O’Hare] station and did not awake again until the train hit close to the end of the bumper.”  She also told investigators that in an earlier incident, in February, she had fallen asleep at the controls and subsequently overshot a train stop.

This accident at O’Hare occurred at 2:50 a.m. CST.

It kind of goes without saying that drowsy driving is dangerous, but you may be surprised as to how big of a deal this problem actually is.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 100,000 police-reported motor vehicle accidents occur in the United States each year; of these, roughly 40,000 injuries occur and 1,550 people die.  These statistics don’t include the accidents that are never reported.  Unfortunately, work and driving accidents in the early morning are far too common, though usually not quite as dramatic as this particular event.  Many of these NHTSA-reported vehicular accidents occur in the early morning, between 2 and 7 a.m.

Further complicating matters is the fact that this tendency toward drowsy driving can be related to many potential underlying causes:  work schedules (particularly schedules that rotate in terms of the timing), home circumstances and social obligations, chronic sleep deprivation, a need to work two jobs, undiagnosed sleep disorders, and irregular sleep schedules.  Many of us can relate to most, if not all, of these causes, which again speaks to how common and problematic drowsy driving can be.

I can’t emphasize the following take-home points enough:

1.  NEVER DRIVE OR OPERATE MACHINERY (including any kind of vehicle) IF YOU ARE DROWSY!!!  It simply isn’t worth it to retain your job or get somewhere on time by risking your life or the life of others around you.  Pull over, stop your work, speak with your supervisor, whatever it takes.

2.  ALWAYS STRIVE TO GET PROPER AMOUNTS OF SLEEP (which for most adults is between 7.5 and 8 hours per night) AND KEEP YOUR SLEEP SCHEDULES REGULAR.  In other words, get as much sleep as your body needs, and get this much sleep regularly, every day at around the same time of day, even if you work night shifts.

3.  If you don’t know WHY you are drowsy when you’re supposed to be awake, SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION.  If you are sleepy despite proper amounts of sleep and regular sleep timing, you may have an intrinsic sleep disorder.  Fixing abnormal sleepiness is one of the functions of a physician sleep specialist.

In closing, I want to give a shout-out to our nation’s first responders.  May we never take them for granted.  We’ve had a lot of disasters recently, it seems, including one geographically very close to me (the tragic, huge March 22 mudslide in Oso, Washington).  Here is a link for those who wish to help in the Oso landslide relief efforts:

http://www.king5.com/news/breaker1/Northwest-Response-Oso-Mudslide-Relief-252007821.html

Stay SAFE, everyone.

The Perils of Drowsy Driving

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.