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Sleep and Driving

Asleep at the wheel
When it comes to alarm bells, statistics on drowsy driving paint a very concerning picture of road safety. An astounding 69% of adult drivers report driving while drowsy at least once a month in the previous year according to The National Sleep Foundation’s 2009 Sleep in America Poll. The prevalence of drowsy driving is higher among respondents reporting a sleep problem (41%) versus those without a problem (28%). The results indicate that sleepiness is a major safety hazard with potentially devastating consequences. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that at least 100,000 traffic accidents, and as many as 1,550 deaths a year are caused by sleepy drivers or falling asleep at the wheel. Nodding off for just three seconds or less while driving can prove fatal. Drowsy driving slows reaction times, reduces vigilance and impairs information processing.

What causes drowsy driving?
Sleepiness and the need to fall asleep while driving can be attributed to several causes:

  • Sleep loss. Most Americans do not get the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended per night and suffer from chronic sleep deprivation. Lifestyle choices and personal demands such as balancing work, family or other responsibilities restrict sleep.
  • Untreated or unrecognized sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy or restless legs syndrome lead to excessive daytime sleepiness. Sleep disorders can cause sleep fragmentation or sleep disruption, which prevents quality or restorative sleep and results in an accumulated sleep debt.
  • Job-related sleep restriction. Shift workers, as well as those working long hours, extended shifts or more than one job, are especially prone to experience sleepiness.
  • Alcohol consumption and use of certain medications. Both can cause sleepiness or exacerbate sedating effects from any other cause.
  • Naturally occurring circadian factors. Our circadian pacemaker, or biological clock in the brain, naturally regulates our body to sleep at specific times. There is a natural increase in the brain’s drive to sleep during the mid-afternoon and at night. These “zones of vulnerability” are times when accidents while driving are most likely to occur and are particularly dangerous for shift workers or employees working long hours.

Who is at risk?
Everyone is at risk. However, shift workers who work at night or long and irregular hours, people with untreated sleep apnea and narcolepsy, and young males are more likely to suffer from a traffic accident caused by sleepiness.

How does a crash relate to sleepiness?
According to the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research, a typical crash has the following characteristics:

  • It is likely to be serious.
  • It occurs during late night/ early morning or mid-afternoon.
  • The driver does not attempt to avoid the crash.
  • A single vehicle leaves the roadway and occurs on a high-speed road.
  • The driver is alone in the vehicle.

The time of the day and driver’s behavior indicate that sleepiness may play a role in traffic accidents. For example, there may be an absence of skid marks or other attempts to take corrective action to avoid the accident.

Drowsy drivers engage in unproductive, unhealthy or unsafe behaviors
According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2009 Sleep in America Poll, chronic drowsy drivers that do so at least once per month are twice as likely than others to report that they are unable to do the following activities because they are too sleepy:

  • Work well and efficiently (22% vs. 10%);
  • Exercise (23% vs. 12%);
  • Eat healthy (17% vs. 8%);
  • Have sex (17% vs. 7%); and/or
  • Engage in leisure activities (24% vs. 11%).

Tips to ensure that you’re getting the sleep you need to get behind the wheel

  • Get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.
  • Have a quiet, comfortable environment in which to sleep, free from distractions such as light and noise.
  • Go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time every day, follow a set routine even on the weekends.
  • Do not eat big meals before going to bed.
  • Avoid caffeine within six hours, and alcohol within three to four hours of going to bed.

When it’s time to hit the road, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Start out well rested
  • Stay involved in driving
  • Avoid using cruise control for long trips
  • Keep the car cool
  • Listen to lively music
  • Keep conversation alive with another passenger, relieving monotony
  • Avoid fixing you eyes straight ahead; but instead scan the road and landscape
  • Share driving on a long trip, if possible
  • When traveling, get out the car and exercise at least once every two hours, or take a 15-20 minute nap at a rest stop, but never on the shoulder of the road
  • Do not drive for long periods at night
  • Watch your posture; slouching brings on fatigue and drowsiness
  • When traveling, get out the car and exercise at least once every two hours, or take a 15-20 minute nap at a rest stop, but never on the shoulder of the road
  • Do not drive for long periods at night


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