Addressing an issue that almost everyone has faced at one time or another, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) is launching an annual Drowsy Driving Prevention Week this month – November 5 – 11. The purpose of the campaign is to educate the public – and young drivers in particular – about the dangers of driving while sleepy. 

Motor vehicle crashes are the number one killer of U.S. teens, but they also are the largest cause of occupational fatalities among workers in general. Fatigue is often the cause. Laborers who must report at very early hours or may be returning home after long shifts on warm summer evenings are prone to drowsiness. Employees who work at night or whose shifts change from week to week are also highly susceptible. Drowsy Driving Prevention Week is designed to raise awareness of the problem and to encourage everyone to take sleeping more seriously.

According to the NSF, sleepiness, like alcohol, slows reaction time and impairs judgment. However, unlike with alcohol, when a driver falls asleep, he or she loses complete control of the vehicle and cannot take measures to avoid a crash. For this reason, drowsy driver crashes are often very serious or fatal and are recognized by the lack of skid marks at the crash scene.

About 70 million Americans, about one in four, have some kind of sleep problem. For most of these, the problem is chronic. Experts recommend 8½ to 9½ hours of sleep a night for teens and young adults. Older adults should get seven to nine hours. However, under the pressures of everyday life, many people do not meet these goals. When people do not get enough sleep, a “sleep debt” accumulates that must be repaid – often at unexpected times, such as behind the wheel of a car.

The signs of fatigue while driving should be easy to recognize: trouble focusing, frequent blinking, yawning, heavy eyelids, drifting from lane to lane and not remembering the last few miles driven. When these signs are encountered, take immediate corrective action. Pull over in a safe spot and take a short nap, or have someone else take over driving. Unfortunately, caffeine can increase alertness for a short time, but cannot be relied upon to overcome sleep deprivation.

Good preparation can help avoid drowsiness.

  • Get adequate sleep before you drive.
  • Allow time for breaks during long trips – about every 100 miles or two hours.
  • Use the buddy system – ask your passenger to stay awake and converse during the drive, to help keep you awake, and to share the driving responsibilities.
  • Do not drink alcohol prior to or while driving and be aware of the potential side effects of any medications you may be taking.

If you are a shift worker and need to sleep during the day, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends:

  • Make your bedroom dark – like nighttime – and sleep at the same time every day.
  • Block out or mask outside sounds.
  • Lower your thermostat before going to bed.
  • Maintain or improve your overall health.
  • Avoid caffeine several hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol for several hours before bedtime.
  • Know the side effects of your medications.
  • Close the bedroom door and hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on it.
  • Unplug the telephone in your bedroom.
  • Develop a relaxing sleep ritual.

The NSF offers more detailed help for shift workers, for whom getting a good “night’s” sleep is a constant problem. Much of this advice is useful for nighttime sleep as well.

In support of this year’s Drowsy Driving Prevention campaign, the NSF has developed a number of posters and “true stories,” mostly aimed at teens and college-aged, young adults. This initial campaign will be used to build grassroots alliances across the U.S. that will be amplified in future years. It has a variety of corporate and professional sponsors and partners.

Like all Americans, Laborers, LIUNA signatory employers and their families face a high risk of death or injury on the roadways, and, often, fatigue is a common part of the problem. With Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, the NSF hopes you will reconsider your sleep habits and the risks you face on the road.

[Steve Clark]