Drowsy driving: the forgotten impairment

By Dave Reville

AARP Vermont

Most drivers know drowsy driving is risky, yet too many still do it. Of course, we cannot always get enough sleep as easily as we can avoid alcohol and drugs, but we must try, because drowsiness can be every bit as dangerous. It causes more than 100,000 crashes nationally every year, killing more than 1,500 people and injuring at least 40,000 more. And those are conservative estimates, because drowsiness is so difficult to quantify and track. According to AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety research, 28 percent of motorists reported struggling to keep their eyes open while driving in the previous month, more than a third have fallen asleep behind the wheel at least once and more than one in 10 has done so in the past year.

Drivers who are most at risk are those who are sleep-deprived for a variety of reasons, such as parents of young children, young males, shift workers, commercial drivers and others who work long hours, those who suffer from sleep disorders or medical conditions that require sedating medication and anyone who must drive at night. These safety strategies can help.

Before you hit the road:

Be awake, alert and well-rested; get enough sleep (7-9 hours for adults, 9-10 for teens)

If you cannot stay awake and alert, don’t drive

Seek treatment for any sleep disorders

Don’t eat a heavy meal, drink alcohol or take sedating medication

Take along a driving partner to share the driving and keep you awake

On the road, watch out for these warning signs:

Trouble focusing, daydreaming

Yawning, blinking and nodding, bleary eyes

Forgetting the past few miles

Missing exits or traffic signs

Drifting from the lane, hitting rumble strips, or accidental tailgating

And use these countermeasures:

Never ignore signs of drowsiness and keep driving

Pull over in a safe area for a stretch and fresh air (do this at least every 100 miles or two hours)

Take a 15-20 minute nap (more than 20 minutes can cause grogginess)

Have coffee or other caffeine before your nap, so the boost will kick in as you wake up

Recent crashes in the news where drowsy driving is the suspected cause are timely reminders that driving drowsy is not harmless. It’s a very real danger that we all should take more seriously.