Asleep At The Wheel

Joel Friedman from Illinois felt the urge to take a nap at about every half hour while driving, as reported Chicago Sun-Times describing several typical cases of sleepy drivers. Instead of pulling over, Joel tries to turn on air conditioning, hoping that cool air will keep him awake. Sure, it will, but only for a short period of time.

Statistics on drowsy and bluntly sleepy driving are not very accurate and probably grossly underestimated. We could relay only on statistic that involved accidents.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), sleepy drivers are responsible for about 100.000 crashes resulted in 1.500 deaths and 72,000 injuries each year. The recent research found that the reaction time of sleepy driver is similar to those who drunk. The legal system quickly identified sleepy driver with a drunk driver (the so-called “Maggie’s Law”) and established a huge fine.

What we learn from psychology is that large statistical numbers usually do not impress individuals. If hundreds or thousand or millions of people die somewhere, this somehow sounds distant, far away and does not affect me personally. Somehow, it is difficult to believe that this horrible thing will happen to us. The simple fact is that people who die falling asleep while driving are good, responsible and not drinking drivers.

The most serious cause for sleepiness is the serious sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea – cessation of breathing in sleep, causing fragmented sleep, decrease oxygen, general fatigue, and many other problems. This is a treatable disease.

Another problem, however, is related to sleep deprivation as general public health issue. Americans sleep at least 1.5 hours less than they should. Chronic night sleep deprivation causes microsleep during daytime. The most frequent causes of accidents are not obvious sleep urges. The majority of people do pull over when they feel sleepy, but they could not recognize microsleep attacks. Physiologically, they are similar to stage 1NREM sleep when the person misses his/her exits, has daydreams superimposed on reality and just for a second is loosing control….

How to recognize these microsleep attacks?

– First, the passengers could see that the driver is not blinking, staring into space. The driver himself feels lapses of time and distance.

What to do? – There is nothing that could substitute sleep deprivation except sleep.

In the meantime, a few techniques to stay awake would be helpful.

Pull over if you feel tired.

If you hold your breath, brain wakes up (temporarily).
Tense and relax muscles of your legs periodically.

The message of this article is simple and clear: YOU could be a number in statistic among injuries or killed sleepy drivers or be killed by one of them!