Driving Dangerously by Driving Drowsy
May 2, 2000 -- Thanks to all of the hard work by Mothers Against Drunk
Driving (MADD) and others, most of us are aware of the hazards of drunken
driving. However, few of us are aware that driving while drowsy can be just as
-- if not more -- dangerous. But individual efforts and statewide awareness
campaigns are helping to educate drivers about the importance of adequate sleep
and the dangers of drowsy driving.
About half of U.S. adults admit to driving while drowsy, and 17% have
actually fallen asleep at the wheel, according to a recent poll by the National
Sleep Foundation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates
that at least 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths each year in
this country are the result of a driver falling asleep at the wheel. And that's
not all. About one million crashes each year occur as a result of driver
inattention or lapses of attention, and sleeplessness increases the risk of
such lapses. Still, experts tell WebMD that drowsy driving accidents may even
be underreported because police officers do not routinely ask about sleepiness
at crash sites.
Drowsy drivers are more likely to crash than well-rested drivers because
they have slower reaction times; impaired judgment and vision; and pay less
attention to important signs, road changes, and actions of other drivers.
Four populations are especially hard hit by drowsy driving, Thomas Roth,
PhD, head of the division of sleep medicine at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit,
tells WebMD. "Drowsy driving is a significant problem in a variety of
groups -- young people, especially males age 18 to 25, because they don't tend
to get enough sleep; shift workers; people with untreated sleep disorders, such
as sleep apnea and narcolepsy; and commercial drivers, because they are on the
road so much," Roth says.
People with sleep apnea -- a serious sleep disorder marked by snoring,
pauses in breathing during sleep, and struggling to breathe during sleep -- are
three to seven times more likely to crash as people without the disorder.
Narcolepsy is characterized by excessive and overwhelming drowsiness. People
with the condition tend to fall asleep at inappropriate times and places,
including behind the wheel.
"Your safety and that of others on the road is at risk when you drive
while drowsy," says Pat Britz, education and research manager at the
National Sleep Foundation in Washington, D.C. "If you are going to drive,
make sure you get eight hours of sleep the night before or take a nap on the
day you depart," she tells WebMD. Studies have shown that only one-third of
Americans get their recommended eight hours of sleep each night.
For long trips, Britz says, drivers should schedule stops or rests every two
hours and alternate drivers throughout the trip. Avoid alcohol or sedating
medications when driving. "Sleepiness can accentuate the effects of alcohol
and vice versa," she says. Sedating medications include certain
antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and some antihistamines.