A few weeks ago I was rear-ended while heading to my kids' school for carpool. The driver immediately apologized for hitting me and confessed he had fallen asleep at the wheel. I noticed he had a child strapped in a car seat and I, being a mom and health writer, gave him a brisk lecture on the importance of getting a good night's sleep. Fortunately, he didn't cause any damage or physical injuries—this time. He was lucky, as are most of the 41 percent of drivers who say they've fallen asleep at the wheel. About one in ten admitted doing so during the past year, according to a study released today by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and educational organization.
For the unlucky ones, driving drowsy can end in death, their own or another's. In fact, one in every six deadly car crashes results from a fatigue-impaired driver, estimates the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's compared to about one in three caused by a drunk driver. Yet only one state in the nation—New Jersey—has a law against driving while sleep deprived, whereas every state has laws against drunk driving. This seems ludicrous, especially when you consider research suggesting that sleep deprivation has effects similar to imbibing a few drinks: "Sleepiness decreases awareness, slows reaction time, and impairs judgement, just like drugs or alcohol," said AAA Foundation President Peter Kissinger in a statement released with the new study. Australian researchers, for example, have found that volunteers who hadn't slept for nearly 20 hours had response speeds that were 50 percent lower than well-rested folks on some cognitive tests; their performance was on par with those who had a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent, which is approaching the legal limit.
New Jersey's Maggie's Law, named after a 20-year-old killed by a sleeping driver, states that any driver who causes a fatality after being awake for 24 straight hours or more can be prosecuted for vehicular homicide. And a number of states including New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Oregon, Kentucky, and Illinois are considering similar laws. While such laws would certainly be helpful, they're difficult to enforce without a scientific way to measure drowsiness like a breathalyzer measures alcohol content. How exactly do you prove in court that someone was awake for more than 24 hours?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is banking on new technologies designed to detect nodding off behind the wheel before an accident occurs. Last week, the agency gave a $1 million contract to the University of Iowa for the development of a sensory device to determine if a driver has stopped braking, steering, or accelerating appropriately; the device has already been shown to be useful for alcohol impairment, though it probably won't be ready for prime-time for another few years. Meantime, there are things we can do to ensure we're not driving drowsy.
1. Have a designated driver when you're sleep deprived. We have one if we drink too much, so why not when we sleep too little? Medical residents coming off a 30-hour shift shouldn't be getting behind the wheel any more than someone who's had a few drinks.
2. Or use public transportation. If you've had an unexpected sleepless night, take the train or bus to work the next day. You might even get a few winks on the ride in—without the risk of running a red light.
3. Take medication labels seriously. It's obvious but worth emphasizing. Never get behind the wheel if the label tells you not to "operate heavy machinery" i.e. a forklift or a Honda. And give yourself a little leeway. Some over-the-counter antihistamines cause drowsiness for four to six hours, for example, but they could still leave some folks drowsy even eight hours later.
4. Watch out for warning signs of drowsiness. These include difficulty keeping your eyes open, the inability to keep your head up, daydreaming, drifting from your lane, or tailgating, according to the AAA Foundation.