It can happen in a blink of an eye. All accidents happen quickly or they would not happen at all and the majority could have been prevented.
Before cell phones, it was reading or eating while driving as a distraction. Then texting was to blame. Now the endless activities, appointments, and around-the-clock work schedules bring more obstacles into driving carefully and responsibly.
Falling asleep at the wheel can also happen in a blink of an eye. You may feel sleepy and before you know it, your eyes are closed and you can hear and feel the rumble strips under the tires. But how can we become more aware of our surroundings? The first steps start with understanding why you are falling asleep.
Sleep apnea is the most common factor behind drowsy driving. Apnea literally translates as "cessation of breathing" which means that during sleep your breathing stops periodically during the night for a few seconds.
These lapses in breathing can occur for up to ten seconds or more and can happen up to hundreds of times a night in severe cases.
Untreated, apnea causes more than accidents on the road. Some patients experience choking or shortness of breath while sleeping. Others experience blocked airways causing excessive snoring that affects not only your sleep but your spouse or partners sleep as well. Due to the lack of sleep, sleep apnea can cause irritability at home or at work affecting your livelihood and relationships.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines drowsy driving as “the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue. This usually happens when a driver has not slept enough, but it can also happen due to untreated sleep disorders, medications, drinking alcohol, or shift work.”
How much of an issue is drowsy driving?
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 2.5% of fatal crashes and 2% of injury crashes involve drowsy driving.
- An estimated 1 in 25 adult drivers (aged 18 years or older) report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days.
- Semi-trucks need an additional 20 to 40 percent more road space to stop and weight 20 to 30 times heavier than cars. Falling asleep behind the wheel is even more deadly.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013.
Though the estimated 800 deaths due to drowsy driving in 2013 was reported, these numbers are underestimated and up to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers.
The American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) credits many of the estimated reports being skewed due to insufficient training and data. First, not all jurisdictions accident reports include “sleepiness.” Second, it is also hard to determine if someone was asleep while driving since there are no procedures like blood alcohol tests to prove this as the factor.
Reports found on accidents due to sleepiness are when the driver admits fault or when no brake marks or other attempts were engaged to avoid the collision.
The ASAA is working with healthcare providers to educate patients on the importance of sleep like the importance of exercise and dieting. Educating patients at a young age also help them routinely keep sleep a priority.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine found in a new study that the “incidence of motor vehicle accidents was reduced by 70 percent among sleep apnea patients who used CPAP therapy for an average of at least 4 hours per night.”
Now you are aware the issue exists, what can you do to prevent drowsy driving? The following information can help you define if you are at risk and tips for traveling safely.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following tips prior to traveling.
- Get enough sleep—most adults need 7 to 9 hours, and most teens need 8.5 to 9.5 hours, to maintain proper alertness during the day.
- Schedule proper breaks, about every 100 miles or 2 hours during long trips.
- Arrange for a travel companion—someone to talk with and share the driving.
- Avoid alcohol and sedating medications—check your labels or ask your doctor.
- Don't stare straight ahead. Move your eyes around and focus on things near and far.
If you check one of these categories, you may be at risk for falling asleep behind the wheel:
- Sleep deprived or fatigued
- Working more than 60 hours per week
- Experiencing jet lag or reduced sleep due to travel
- Driving alone or on long, dark, rural roads
- Taking sedating medications such as antihistamines or antidepressants
- Shift work that involves overnight driving
So you checked off one of the at risk categories; what are the signs before you hurt yourself or someone else on the road?
- Yawning, rubbing your eyes, or blinking frequently
- Difficulty remembering the past few miles driven or focusing on where you are.
- Missing your exit.
- Hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road.
- Feeling restless and irritable
Read our article The Dangers of Drowsy Driving to learn more about laws and policies. You may even be living in one of 13 states who have adopted driver’s license restrictions for motorists with untreated sleep disorders.
If you have experienced difficulty staying awake while driving, or often feel tired during the day, there is a chance that your symptoms may be due to an untreated sleep disorder.
At the Alaska Sleep Clinic, we treat thousands of individuals every year for sleep disorders, and for many patients the most common complaint is chronic drowsiness. Give us a call today and we can help you start sleeping better so you can drive safer.