Combating Drowsy Driving

Many years ago, a young fellow who I was great friends with was on a run to fix a truck up north. He called his wife on his way back to tell her that he would be home in about four or five hours. Well, it wasn’t long before she got word that he had fallen asleep while driving, gone over an embankment and sustained fatal injuries.

Since then, I have heard dozens more drowsy driving stories, not from strangers, but from people I know. I have also been a victim of drowsy driving, waking up a few times in the past to the sound of slinging gravel. Once I actually woke up to the bright lights of a semi, and if that doesn’t scare the tar out of you, nothing will.

In short, drowsy driving is a major problem. Experts estimate that the cost of automobile accidents related to sleep issues is somewhere between $29.2 to $37.9 billion annually. In a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey, 60% of the 4,010 respondents admitted to falling asleep while driving on an interstate-type highway with posted speeds of 55 mph or higher. Nearly half of those respondents reported nodding off between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. and/or 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.

So, while it’s distracted driving that gets most of the public’s attention these days, there also needs to be a focus on drowsy driving – yet there is very limited understanding of what it is, its warning signs and how to prevent falling asleep at the wheel. That’s especially concerning because in construction, up to 75% of employees may drive long distances during the course of their work.

Despite the difficulty in establishing that drowsy driving contributed to an accident, certain crash characteristics can indicate that it was a factor. These include no skid marks at the scene; the accident happened late at night, early in the morning or in the midafternoon; only the driver was in the vehicle; and the accident occurred on a relatively narrow, straight road such as a two-lane highway, long country road or suburban road.

Given that drowsy driving is such a widespread hazard, following are some important things to know and do to help keep you – and other motorists – safe on the roads:

  • The National Sleep Foundation (www.thensf.org) recommends seven to eight hours of sleep per night or at least a 30-minute nap just before driving long distances.
  • The National Sleep Foundation also tells us that sleep-related crashes are most common in younger workers, including those working as ambulance drivers, equipment operators and truck drivers.
  • Individuals who work in the early mornings and/or late evenings can be especially susceptible to drowsy driving.
  • People who drive long hours – such as long-haul truckers – are at risk of drowsy driving if they haven’t taken appropriate rest breaks.
  • Anyone with a sleep disorder and drivers who take medications that could cause drowsiness should consult with their doctor before getting behind the wheel.
  • Travelers who change time zones frequently should be aware that they may be at increased risk for drowsy driving.

There also are a few things you should know about what doesn’t help to wake us up. Be aware that doing any of the following will not necessarily lessen your drowsiness: opening a window, eating, having a conversation, turning on the heater or air conditioner, switching a light on inside the vehicle or playing loud music.

Prevention Strategies
So, what are some strategies to help prevent a drowsy driving incident? Here are several to commit to memory:

  • Drive with someone else in the car so you can switch drivers if you become drowsy, or use public transportation if it’s available.
  • Schedule at least one rest break when you’re driving more than 100 miles or over two hours.
  • If possible, avoid driving late at night or early in the morning.
  • If you do feel sleepy, pull over and rest for at least 30 minutes.
  • Keep in mind that sleeping pills can linger in the body for hours.
  • Don’t simply rely on warning signs to indicate that you’re drowsy. About half of all drivers involved in a drowsy-driving crash experienced no warning signs before falling asleep. That’s right, none.

In closing, don’t tempt fate. If you’re feeling drowsy, or if you’ve been on the road for a while without a break, pull over at the first safe spot and get some rest. There is no other remedy for drowsiness. Yes, your arrival at your destination might be delayed, but better late than never. Your family, friends and co-workers are counting on you to make the right call.

About the Author: R. Neal Gracey is a craft training manager for Henkels & McCoy, where he has been employed for 43 years. He trains new hires and inexperienced lineworkers and is also heavily involved in safety coaching observation training. Henkels & McCoy is currently searching for a craft training manager to work with Gracey. He can be reached at [email protected].

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