This June’s horrific traffic accident that left comedian Tracy Morgan severely injured should be a wakeup call for anyone who works nights, double or rotating shifts or who has ever climbed behind the wheel tired. Morgan was badly hurt and a companion killed when their limousine was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer whose driver had not slept in more than 24 hours. Four other passengers were also injured.
According to police reports, the driver, who has been charged with vehicular homicide, did not notice traffic had slowed in front of him. His rig slammed into Morgan’s limo, causing it to flip onto its roof. This in turn led to a pile-up involving four other vehicles.
Drowsy driving is a serious problem. Just one night of getting six hours or less sleep triples a driver’s risk for behaviors that mirror driving drunk.
Being under the influence of alcohol slows reaction time and impairs alertness. Being drowsy does the same thing. It also impacts judgment, leading people to underestimate the seriousness of driving tired and be overconfident in their abilities to handle it. A survey of American drivers conducted by the National Sleep Foundation found that more than half have driven while struggling to stay awake. A third admitted that they had actually fallen asleep. A joint report from the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, 40,000 injuries, 1,550 deaths and more than $12 billion in monetary losses.
Why are drivers drowsy?
- Shift work that keeps workers on the road after dark and overnight when their internal clocks tell them they should be sleeping. Driving between midnight and 6 a.m. – the Tracy Morgan accident occurred around 1 a.m. – and driving home after an extended shift or a night shift are peak times for nodding off.
- Work days that stretch beyond the traditional eight hours, leaving little time to unwind before going to bed and less time to sleep. People who work overtime, double shifts or work more than one job are particularly vulnerable to being drowsy behind the wheel. The driver of the truck that plowed into Morgan’s limo had been on the job about 13.5 hours at the time of the crash. Federal rules permit truck drivers to work up to 14 hours a day, with a maximum of 11 hours behind the wheel.
- Family and job stress that keep people awake after they go to bed.
- Medical conditions like sleep apnea that can disrupt sleep without the person being aware.
- Medications that interrupt normal sleep patterns.
Warning signs of being drowsy behind the wheel:
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, heavy eyelids
- Trouble remembering the last few miles driven, missing exits or traffic signs
- Yawning repeatedly, rubbing your eyes
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting, tailgating, hitting a shoulder rumble strip
- Feeling restless and irritable
If you are driving and experience any of these symptoms, pull over immediately and take a 20-minute nap. Don’t count on coffee and other caffeinated beverages, turning up the radio or opening the windows to keep you awake. If you are traveling with another driver, ask them to take over.
You are at increased risk for driving drowsy if you are:
- Sleep-deprived or fatigued
- Driving long distances without proper rest breaks
- Driving through the night, midafternoon or when you would normally be asleep
- Taking certain over-the-counter antihistamines, cold tablets and headache medications and certain prescription antidepressants, asthma, blood pressure, heart and pain medications
- Working more than 60 hours a week (increases your risk by 40 percent)
- Drinking even small amounts of alcohol
- Driving alone or driving on long, rural, dark or boring roads
Take steps to avoid driving home from work drowsy:
- Carpool so there is someone else awake in the vehicle that can drive if needed.
- Get a ride home from an alert co-worker.
- Call a family member or a friend to pick you up.
- Take a taxi or public transportation.
- Take a short nap (15 to 20 minutes) before driving.
Planning to travel?
- Get a good night’s sleep. Sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults and eight to nine hours for teens.
- Drive long trips with a companion. Passengers can look for signs of fatigue or switch drivers when needed. Passengers should stay awake to talk to the driver.
- Schedule regular stops every 100 miles or every two hours.
It is also important to get treatment for any medical conditions that can disrupt sleep and to always read the labels of medications you are taking. If they contain ingredients that can make you sleepy, talk to your health care provider. Dosing times may be able to be adjusted or alternative medications might be available.
[Janet Lubman Rathner]