Drowsy Driving Can Steer You Into Disaster

Tiredness a factor in 100,000 crashes a year

TUESDAY, Nov. 26, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- On Dec. 21, 1999, Melissa Cullen and her father were driving down Rte. 20 in rural Delaware to put Christmas greenery on her mother's gravesite. Melissa's mother had died just eight months before. To Melissa, the day was a wonderful opportunity to spend time getting to better know her father.

The two had been on the road for only a few minutes when Cullen noticed an oncoming car drifting into their lane and pointed it out to her dad. "He told me to hang on," she says.

The next thing Cullen remembers is waking up in a hospital bed and seeing two police officers by her side. Her father had been killed in a car accident, they told her. Melissa herself had suffered a broken shoulder, nose, foot and many other injuries in addition to amnesia (she had to be told about her mother's death all over again).

The woman who had hit them had fallen asleep at the wheel at 11:40 in the morning.

This kind of tragedy can and does happen all year, a consequence of everyone's relentless push to work and study harder. But the likelihood increases during the holiday season.

"During the holidays, people drink alcohol, and alcohol is a depressant. It causes people to be sleepy," says Dr. Elaine Josephson, an emergency room physician at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City and a spokeswoman for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). "The other issue is that people are up all night. They go to parties. They enjoy themselves, they're preparing for the holidays and they have less sleep."

Add bad weather into the mix, and you could have a recipe for potential disaster.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, drowsy driving is the cause of 100,000 police-reported crashes each year, costing more than 1,550 deaths, causing 71,000 injuries, and resulting in $12.5 billion in economic costs.

The problem may actually be much bigger, says Mark Rosekind, a member of the board of directors of the National Sleep Foundation and a psychologist who used to run a fatigue program.

"Most people think that fatigue probably accounts for up to 20 percent of all crashes," he says. In a country with about 6 million crashes a year, that translates into 1.2 million crashes caused by fatigue.

Perhaps even more frightening, the National Sleep Foundation's "2002 Sleep in America" poll found that more than half of all American adults admit to driving while drowsy, while 17 percent said they had actually fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year.

Of the 51 percent of adults who said they had driven while drowsy, 56 percent were males. The overwhelming majority (71 percent) were between the ages of 18 and 29.

The less people sleep, obviously, the greater the likelihood of crashing. The woman who crashed into Melissa Cullen's car was a shift worker who had slept only three hours in the past 24-hour period.

According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, people who sleep six to seven hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in such a crash as those sleeping at least eight hours or more. People sleeping less than five hours increased their risk four to five times.

The woman who was responsible for Cullen's father's death received only two points on her license and a $115 fine. Although such penalties are likely to get stiffer, the real punishment goes to those who survive.

Cullen has had chronic headaches, loss of vision, and sinus and back problems, among other things, since the accident.

And Tom Callaghy, a college professor whose wife of 33 years was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel, refers to "the total horror of waking up and realizing that my wife had died because I fell asleep at the wheel. I mean, it's total devastation for her family, for my family, and it's a guilt that I'm going to live with for the rest of my life."

Callaghy was a speaker at a recent two-day summit held in Washington, D.C., by the National Sleep Foundation to increase public awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving.

Before you hit the road this holiday season, plan ahead, make sure you get enough sleep and follow these tips:

  • Have another driver with you so you can relieve each other whenever one starts to feel tired.
  • If you can, stop for the night and get a good rest. Otherwise, pull into a safe, well-lighted area and take a 15-to-20 minute nap.
  • Don't rely on caffeine, radio playing, or opening a window for longer than 15 or 20 minutes, Rosekind advises. These tricks will get you to a resting spot, but they won't get you safely to your destination.
  • Be vigilant to the people around you. If someone is driving too slowly or drifting towards the center lane, stay away from that car.
  • If you're going to a holiday party, make sure you have a designated driver, or arrange for a taxi to take you home if it's late and you're tired.
  • Continue to take your medications as prescribed, Josephson advises. Forgetting medications or altering your dosing schedule in any way can cause drowsiness.
  • Be careful what you eat, especially if you have heart disease or diabetes. This can also alter how alert you feel.
  • Learn to read your own body and recognize when you're tired. Some classic symptoms are yawning, fidgeting in your seat, and finding your eyes are focused and not looking around so much. You may have additional signs such as a headache, rapid eye blinking, or a stomachache. "Figure out what those signs are so when you see them, that's a cue to take action," Rosekind says.
  • Finally, pull over immediately if you have any of these symptoms: difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids; trouble keeping your head up; repeated yawning; trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs; drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip.

What To Do

For more on drowsy driving, visit the National Sleep Foundation or the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

SOURCES: Melissa Parks Cullen, Salisbury, Md.; Elaine B. Josephson, M.D., attending physician, department of emergency medicine, St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center, New York, and spokeswoman, American College of Emergency Physicians; Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., president and chief scientist, Alertness Solutions, Cupertino, Calif., and member, board of directors, National Sleep Foundation; Mantill Williams, director, Public Affairs, American Automobile Association, Washington, D.C.
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