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.