[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]
By now you’ve likely heard the term “drowsy driving.” This form of impairment while operating a car has become a significant problem in our country.
Part of the reason is that it’s very difficult to know when you’re sleep deprived. Our ability to make sound judgments or to check in with our alertness is masked by sleep deprivation.
On top of that, when one is significantly sleep deprived, they can experience something known as a microsleep, with zero warning.
A microsleep occurs when the brain is so sleep deprived that it shuts down consciousness in tiny increments to try to facilitate sleep. At some point, your body will eventually give in and fall asleep, even if you’re trying not to. The result? Fleeting involuntary naps that put you at risk for falls, injuries, and accidents.
What happens when you have driver fatigue
Everybody knows falling asleep at the wheel is clearly dangerous, but even just being drowsy affects your ability to operate a vehicle, as it:
- Affects your ability to sustain alertness and attention, so critical to defensive driving
- Impairs your ability to react quickly in the event you need to suddenly brake or swerve, and
- Affects your ability to make smart decisions while behind the wheel.
As a nation, we’re far more sleep deprived than we know, and one of the results is traffic accidents, many which end in fatalities.
In the state of Alabama alone, the statistics are worrisome. In 2015, there were:
- 2505 crashes involving drowsy drivers, with 32 resulting in fatalities (with fatal drowsy driving collisions in 2016 increasing to 43)
- 180 of a total of 8484 truck crashes involving drowsy drivers
Nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that drowsy driving was the cause of 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths in 2013. However, experts believe these numbers are low and think there were probably more than 6,000 fatal crashes annually that could have been caused by drowsy drivers.
Meanwhile, other recent nationwide surveys of drivers report that four percent of all drivers have admitted to falling asleep behind the wheel of the car over the last 30 days.
Who drives drowsy?
People who are known to snore or who routinely sleep six or fewer hours a night are much more likely to drive while drowsy. In fact, some research shows that those who typically sleep only four or five hours a night are over five times more likely to be involved in a crash.
The substance use concern is not just one that’s relevant to addicts (though substance abusers also have troubled sleep patterns and should never get behind the wheel of the car). If you have the flu, which is a likelihood this year with Alabama’s more severe flu season, you might be a candidate for drowsy driving either because of lost sleep, because of the medications you take to treat your symptoms, or a combination of both.
The relationship between alcohol and drowsy driving
Alcohol also plays a critical role in drowsy driving. It’s well understood that a sober drowsy driver is impaired in roughly the same way as a drunken driver. Some statistics from the National Sleep Foundation drive home this point:
- Being awake for 18 hours straight negatively impairs your driving skills, making them comparable to having a blood alcohol level of .05 (for reference, .08 is considered legally drunk in the state of Alabama).
- If you’ve been awake for a full 24 hours, your ability to operate a vehicle with alertness is greatly impaired. Your skills will be diminished as if you had a blood alcohol level of .10.
However, not many people realize that if you’re sleep deprived and then you have had even one drink, you are much more likely to cause an accident as a driver under those conditions.
A recent study by the Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience at Monash University in Australia found that those who were sleep deprived or consumed only moderate amounts of alcohol (within legal limits for driving) were found to be even more drowsy and lacking in the necessary vigilance that driving requires than compared to those who were only sleep deprived or only impaired by alcohol. What’s more, the combined effects of both sleep deprivation and alcohol lasted two to three hours.
Study author Clare Anderson said, “No amount of alcohol intake has been deemed safe when under the influence of sleepiness through either poor or inadequate sleep, or being awake when the body (should be) asleep at night.”
The study’s results confirm findings from a 2016 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report that found that drivers sleeping only five or six hours in a 24-hour period are two times more likely to crash than those who sleep at least seven hours nightly.
With the holidays being a time of sleep loss (thanks to stress and the lost sleep it causes), there’s no better reason to cut back on alcoholic beverages if you know you’re going to drive. And yet, there are so many celebrations to attend, and so many people who do not put two and two together.
Sleep loss + alcohol consumption at any level = a high risk for drowsy driving.
Protect yourself against drowsy driving
Here are a few indicators you should resist the urge to get behind the wheel of a car or, if you’re driving, to pull over and take a nap or switch drivers:
You hit a rumble strip (those bumpy lines on either side of the lane which are there to warn you that you are drifting outside of the lane)
- You miss your exit.
- You suddenly realize you can’t remember driving over the last few miles.
- You are yawning, blinking frequently, rubbing your eyes, having trouble focusing, bobbing your head, noticing heavy eyelids or the need to “rest” one eye… in short, feeling too relaxed to operate the car with vigilance. (Many drowsy driving accidents show no evidence of skid marks or other signs of braking before collision due to this compelling period of relaxation prior to the crash.)
Despite popular wisdom, turning up your radio or rolling down the windows are not acceptable means for preventing drowsy driving.
Know the laws regarding drowsy driving in the state of Alabama
Only two states in the US actually have traffic laws specifically targeting drowsy driving. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re caught drowsy driving, there won’t be consequences. In the state of Alabama, fatigued drivers could be charged with any of the following based upon the situation:
- Reckless driving (Section 32-5A-190)
- Assault in the first degree (Section 13A-6-20)
- Criminally negligent homicide (Section 13A-6-4)
- Manslaughter (Section 13A-6-3)
- Murder (Section 13A-6-2)
Also worth noting: Alabama has designated November 19th each year as Drowsy Driver Awareness Day [SJR 71(2016)].
How to drive safe and arrive alive this holiday season
- Get your sleep! It’s as simple as clocking in at least seven hours a night.
- Don’t drive if you’re sleepy. Hail a cab, use a paid ride service, take the bus, find a friend to ride along with.
- If you still need to drive your own car, have a coffee nap first: drink a cup of coffee or other caffeinated beverage, then take a 15- to 20-minute nap. When you awaken, the caffeine will have raised your alertness level and the added winks will restore you as well.
- Listen to your body. Nobody can resist a microsleep, as much as they believe they can. The brain will win this duel over the body every time, so don’t even think about challenging the biology of drowsiness.
“Acute Sleep Deprivation and Crash Risk.” AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Dec 2016. https://www.aaafoundation.org/acute-sleep-deprivation-and-crash-risk; website accessed online December 19, 2017.
“Alcohol may impair tired drivers even if they aren’t drunk.” Rapaport L. Reuters, 18 Aug 18 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-alcohol-drowsy-driving/alcohol-may-impair-tired-drivers-even-if-they-arent-drunk-idUSKCN1AY1XA; website accessed online December 19, 2017.
“Asleep at the Wheel: The Impact of Drowsy Driving. ” Penton Corporal J, Impaired Driving Enforcement. Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), 2017. http://aaspweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Asleep-at-the-Wheel-2017.pdf; website accessed online December 19, 2017.
“Combined effects of alcohol and sleep deprivation in normal young adults.” Peeke SC, Callaway E, Jones RT, Stone GC, Doyle J. Psychopharmacology, 1980;67(3):279-87.
“Drowsy Driving: Asleep at the Wheel.” National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division of Population Health, 7 Nov 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdrowsydriving/index.html; website accessed online December 19, 2017.
“Drowsy Driving vs. Drunk Driving: How similar are they?” National Sleep Foundation, 2017. https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/drowsy-driving-vs-drunk-driving-how-similar-are-they; website accessed online December 19, 2017.
“Sleepy drivers make dangerous drivers: How to stay awake behind the wheel. ” University of Alabama at Birmingham. ScienceDaily, 2 May 2017. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/05/170502160837.htm; website accessed online December 19, 2017.