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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Post-Superbowl Insomnia

A cold, bitter rain is falling in Seattle this morning, not the misty, spitting kind we often get in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of winter, but the big-droplet, drenching sort, rain that soaks your clothes, makes you shiver, and causes your kids to catch cold.

The weather reflects our collective mood in Seattle today, as we struggle to process what happened at the very end of last night’s Superbowl XLIX, in which the Seattle Seahawks battled the New England Patriots for the NFL championship and the Lombardi trophy.  In the final seconds of the final quarter, with the Seahawks in possession of the ball, second down and goal, mere feet from the Patriots’ end zone, Quarterback Russell Wilson threw the football instead of giving it to a running back (i.e., “Beastmode” Marshawn Lynch) for a rushing play.  As most everyone knows now, that final play didn’t go very well, resulting in a Patriots interception that sealed the win for Brady and Co. and hammered the final nail in the coffin for our Seahawks.

 

I am doing my best not to turn this post into a commentary about that play, Coach Pete Carroll’s decision-making, and the resulting outcome of the game.  But I will share here that I experienced some, shall we say, emotional intensities in response to Carroll’s authorization to throw that ball, something that surely would have been lauded as a “brilliant play” and a “gutsy move” had it resulted in a touchdown.  Those intense emotions led to . . . you guessed it . . . some sleep-maintenance insomnia last night.  I woke up at 3:16 a.m. and it took a while for me to fall back to sleep.  I’m not alone in this misery.  I’m sure there were a lot of people awake last night throughout the Puget Sound area, and not because of celebrating.  Earlier this morning some colleagues and I were talking about the game in our doctors’ lounge, and my hand surgeon friend told me he had awakened at 3:30 himself!  I strongly suspect Carroll has a number of sleepless nights ahead of him as well.

People tend to awaken in the middle of the night in the setting of intense emotions, particularly negative or traumatic ones.  This phenomenon is called early morning awakening.  Early morning awakening is part of the human condition:  we all experience emotional peaks and valleys as we move through life, and most everyone has had an occasion or two to awaken in response to the peaks and valleys.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The driver of the problem (in my case, that crazy throw) is the first thing you think about when you abruptly awaken, almost as if you had been thinking about it somehow prior to your awakening, and you turn the thing over in your head, ruminating about what went wrong, setting up all kinds of alternative scenarios, going through the “what if’s,” . . . right?  All of those thoughts and emotions have a stimulating effect, which tends to prolong awake time once aroused from sleep.

What I’m describing is a reactionary or situational form of insomnia which, again, in many respects is simply a result of human nature.  The good news is that in many or most cases, this temporary problem eventually (and usually quickly) fades and resolves as the intensity of whatever it is that you’re ruminating over fades (for us Seahawks fans, the sooner last night’s game is pushed toward the back of the vault of football history the better). However, in some cases, particularly for those with suboptimal baseline sleep habits (poor sleep hygiene), this insomnia can snowball into something more substantial and chronic, called psychophysiologic insomnia, which may benefit from medical attention if severe, sustained, or problematic enough.

I’m sure the intensity of the moment will start fading shortly for me as I delve into this week’s work, but this morning I admit I’m a little bleary-eyed and upset, which is why I was in the doctors’ lounge getting some coffee and commiserating about our loss.  Next year should be a great one.  Watch out for the Seahawks in 2015-16!

Dinosaurs and Seahawks: Defense Wins Championships

I was one of those dinosaur kids.  I grew up completely, hopelessly enamored by dinosaurs.  I found them endlessly fascinating.  As a preschooler I strived to learn about and memorize as many prehistoric creatures as possible.  I could tell you which eras and periods in which various dinosaurs lived, what their bony structures told us about their ways of life, where their fossils were first discovered, how they walked, what they ate.  In my young childhood days long before the Internet, I satisfied my interest in paleontology through books, flash cards, and models.  I carried dinosaur books and drawings everywhere I went.  The librarians at Whitewater, Wisconsin’s public library all knew my name and knew my favorite place to camp out while I drank in as much dino-knowledge as my young brain could handle.  My fervor for the topic even earned me and my tattered book of drawings an article in Whitewater’s newspaper when I was four:

 

Anyway, everyone I encountered as a young child asked me the same question:  “What’s your favorite dinosaur?”  That was an easy question to answer.  Of course it was Ankylosaurus.

 

(This, by the way, is my all-time favorite depiction of Ankylosaurus, taken from my all-time favorite dinosaur book.)

Strange and turtle-like in appearance, Ankylosaurus sported much more than just a hard-shell carapace to protect itself from predators.  If you examine its body further, you will notice several additional features that surely served it well:  hard lateral spikes, a series of protective horns on the crest of its head, and–the pièce de résistance–a hard, bony club at the end of its tail, great for whacking the legs of would-be aggressors that ventured a little too close.  Seriously, imagine yourself as a Tyrannosaurus Rex trying to get a piece of this guy.  Good luck.

 

I’m sure I was asked somewhere along the way by curious adults, “Why do you like Ankylosaurus so much?”  I doubt I would have been able to give a cogent reply to this more challenging question as a young child.  But as an adult, I think I now know the answer:  Ankylosaurus was a giant, living, walking, breathing defensive weapon.

In our modern world we’re constantly assailed by all sorts of crazy stuff:  an overwhelming mountain of information, people, advertisements, opportunities, and threats, coming at us like a slow-moving, never-stopping avalanche as we move through life.  Though I am probably the worst possible person to assess my own personality, I know I identify easily with the idea of hunkering down and going into shield mode, on behalf of myself and my family.  I’m more of a protector than a predator.  I suppose, then, that it’s natural that I identified with the Ankylosaurus more than I did the T-Rex as a young child.

So–and I recognize this may be the weirdest segue in the history of blogdom–I found last week’s Seattle Seahawks Superbowl win over the Denver Broncos particularly gratifying, and not just because I’m a proud Seattle resident and Seahawks fan.  After hearing for two solid weeks various commentators and pundits crowing about Payton Manning and Denver’s offensive records this season, there was a clear sense of satisfaction in watching all of that not matter as the Seahawks dismantled the Broncos with its smothering, overwhelming defense.

 

Seattle’s domination was so complete, in fact, that it had ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless eating crow and paying respect where it was due:

Sometimes a formidable offense just doesn’t matter.  The fact that the phrase “defense wins championships” is a cliché doesn’t matter either.  It’s a cliché because it’s true.  Just ask Ankylosaurus, who isn’t too ancient to provide us all a little lesson for these crazy modern times.