Drowsy driving can be as deadly as driving while drunk, studies show
In a 2005 poll, 60 percent of adults said that they had driven while drowsy in the past year, and one out of five admitted they had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Most motorists know how dangerous it is to drink and then get behind the wheel, but drowsy driving can be just as deadly, causing thousands of crashes each year and claiming hundreds of lives.

Just as alcohol significantly impairs a person’s ability to drive safely, studies show that similar impairment takes place in people who drive with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and other sleep disorders. Indeed, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths.

While being drowsy is a temporary condition for many people that can be overcome by catching up on sleep, for many others it’s a debilitating problem. Obstructive sleep apnea is an often life-threatening condition that affects 18 million people in the United States. OSA occurs when tissue in the upper airway blocks the breathing passages. When the airway closes, the sleeper gasps and wakes up briefly and then goes back to sleep. The process can repeat itself more than 60 times an hour, which deprives OSA sufferers from reaching vital deep stages of slumber.

Risk factors for OSA include obesity, family history of OSA or snoring, and having a small upper airway. Aging is a risk factor, but healthy men, women and children may suffer from OSA. The National Institute of Health estimates 2 percent of women and 4 percent of men over the age of 35 have sleep apnea in conjunction with excessive daytime sleepiness.

Drowsiness can impair motorists’ driving ability by slowing their reaction time, decreasing their awareness and clouding their judgement–just as alcohol does. According to the Divided Attention Driving Task, a research test that mimics driving performance, people with sleep apnea perform, on average, as poorly as those whose levels of blood alcohol concentration exceed the legal limit.

What’s more, a report by the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research found that drowsy drivers cause more deaths per accident than drunk drivers.

“Drowsy driving risks the life of not only the driver, but the lives of their passengers– family and friends–and other drivers on the road,” said Richard Gelula, chief executive officer of the National Sleep Foundation. “The disastrous effects of fatigue-related crashes can easily be prevented; all it takes is for people to recognize the problem and get off the road.”

Warning signs that it is time to pull over include:
  • trouble focusing, frequent blinking and heavy eyelids;
  • tailgating, swerving, drifting from your lane;
  • repeated yawning;
  • difficulty remembering the last few miles driven and missed exits or traffic signs.

To combat drowsy driving, get a good night’s sleep before a trip and take frequent stops for breaks. Avoid driving alone for long distances and driving through the night. Also, avoid alcohol or medications that can impair driving or intensify the effects of sleepiness.

To determine if you suffer from OSA rather than just occasional sleepiness, consult a physician. Typically OSA sufferers are unaware of their symptoms, and it is estimated that up to 90 percent of all cases of sleep apnea are never diagnosed. Spouses most frequently witness the periods of apnea. Symptoms include loud snoring, periods of not breathing, awakening not rested in the morning, abnormal daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, weight gain, limited attention, memory loss and lethargy.

There are a number of surgical and nonsurgical treatments for OSA. The most common option is a continuous positive airflow pressure (CPAP) machine, a mask that supplies a steady stream of air through the nose during sleep that keeps the nasal passages open. Also, weight loss and changing sleep habits or positions can reduce sleep apnea.

For details about OSA, visit www.sleepapneainfo.com.

Wake up with free brochure from AAA

Afternoon and night can be risky for drivers because sleep becomes an irresistible urge, leading to crashes, but motorists can follow some simple steps to avoid drowsy driving.

AAA has created a free brochure called Wake Up! that contains symptoms of sleepiness to watch for, such as having trouble keeping your eyes focused, as well as tips on staying alert behind the wheel.

Another section examines misconceptions about sleep, such as that people can tell when they are about to fall asleep. In a study of drivers who fell asleep and crashed, half said they felt only “somewhat sleepy” or “not at all sleepy” just before the crash.

For a free copy of the pamphlet, send a self-addressed, business-size envelope to AAA, Wake Up!, 12901 N. Forty Drive, St. Louis, MO, 63141. For more information, visit online at www.AAA.com and click on “Tips to avoid fatigue driving,” located in the Traffic and Public Safety section.

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