Danger on the Road

Watch out for drowsy driving.

High speed. No skid marks. A serious accident. These hallmarks often indicate to crash scene investigators that a driver nodded off at the wheel.

We’ve all seen someone do it: in a meeting, in a church pew or on the couch after dinner. Their eyelids droop, their head nods as they try to keep their chin up. Though they fight to remain alert, they cannot contend with their body’s overwhelming urge to sleep.

A microsleep can last just seconds and people are often unaware that it occurred. It happens most often due to fatigue and strikes during monotonous tasks like driving, especially long stretches of highway. Unfortunately, that means these collisions tend to involve high rates of speed. And because the driver is momentarily unaware, they fail to brake or make any attempt to avoid the accident.

A chemical in our brains called adenosine builds up gradually during wakefulness, compelling the brain to sleep. The only way to decrease adenosine is with rest, so no matter how strong-willed a driver is, they cannot stop this biological process.

Even if a drowsy driver manages to avoid falling asleep, their driving can be equivalent to that of a drunk driver. Sleepiness diminishes reaction times, memory and coordination, making drivers slow to respond, even when quick thinking might be the only way to avoid a crash.

Reasons for drowsiness are familiar: lack of sleep from a new baby, long hours of studying or a late night with friends, shift workers exhausted on their way home from a night on the job and people whose jobs involve driving. All of these routine reasons for sleepiness can endanger drivers, passengers and those on the streets around them.

An in-depth 2018 study found that as many as 10.8% of all police-reportable crashes and a substantial number of fatal accidents are because of sleepy drivers. Additionally, an astounding 1 in 25 adults surveyed admitted they had fallen asleep at the wheel within the last 30 days.

Drowsy driving is most likely to be a factor during the body’s habitual sleep periods through the night and early morning hours. Some people also experience an afternoon dip in alertness, and older drivers are especially prone to accidents at this time of day.

Untreated sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea, prevent people from getting the good-quality, restorative sleep necessary to prevent drowsiness behind the wheel.

Drowsy driving kills and disables, but the good news is that these accidents are largely preventable. Make lifestyle changes that allow at least 7 hours of quality sleep, including addressing any sleep issues with your doctor. In special circumstances, take a short nap in a safe spot to prevent accidentally succumbing to sleep. The only way to avoid microsleep sneaking up on you is by getting enough healthy sleep.

● Always start out well-rested
● On long trips, stop for a few minutes of exercise and stretching every hour or two
● Keep your brain engaged: Scan the road and scenery, don’t use cruise control
● Engage in lively conversation with a passenger or via hands-free call
● Do not drive for long periods at night (or day for shift workers)
● Keep the vehicle cool


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