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At Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorder Center in Auburn, AL, we always want to keep our clients informed. Check out our blog entries on the latest news and developments regarding sleep disorders.

National Sleep Awareness Month: Drowsy driving is impaired driving

March 25, 2018

drowsy driving collision highway auburn alabama asleep at the wheel


[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]

We love our cars in Alabama. In the Auburn-Opelika area, it’s still our favorite mode of transport to and from work and school.

While Auburn isn’t the worst city in Alabama for commuter traffic, it still ranks 10th in state overall according to this poll. And even that isn't such a bad commute. But a 17-minute one-way ride across town is still enough time to have an accident, especially if you’re tired.

What is drowsy driving?

Despite what many think, drowsy driving does not happen only to truck drivers. In fact, it can—and doeshappen to anyone, young or old, male or female, during the day or night, and on city or country roads. College students, stay-home moms, professionals working overtime, and shift workers constitute a broad constituency of drivers in our neighborhoods who might not be alert enough to get behind the wheel of a car.

When you fall asleep at the wheel, or become so sleepy that you can no longer safely drive a motor vehicle, you are “driving while drowsy.” Being excessively sleepy while driving makes it difficult to apply proper judgment or react quickly enough in the event something goes wrong and split-second decisions occur as you drive.  

A unique feature of drowsy driving is the brain’s insistence upon falling into a state known as a “microsleep.” If you’re severely lacking in sleep, you really can’t fight a tired brain: it will shut down cognitive functions in an effort to conserve energy, which leads to brief seconds where you lose consciousness. These so-called “microsleeps” are so brief that you may not even realize they’re happening… until you drive out of your lane or off the road and crash.

Drowsy driving in America 

While most people think of driving while sleepy as irresponsible, a full third of all drivers in recent national surveys have conceded they’ve driven while drowsy at least once in the last month.

They could have been one of the thousands of people you’ve driven alongside at full speed on I-85 heading for work or on a congested Alabama Highway 14 after a Tigers game. Certainly, if you were on the road on Sleepy Monday (the first weekday following the spring time change), then you were driving in the company of sleepy drivers (and maybe you were even one of them).

Being sleepy behind the wheel of the car is no small thing. Research suggests that being awake for 18 consecutive hours can leave you as impaired as if you had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, which is considered legally drunk in the state of Alabama. (Did you know? Being sleep deprived while drinking magnifies impairment.)

According to statistics compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an estimated 100,000 car collisions annually are the direct result of driving while sleepy. The agency has data to suggest that as many as 2 out of 10 of all annual traffic deaths in the US are "attributable to driver drowsiness."

Between 2009 and 2013, the NHTSA has evidence showing that over 72,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers, which injured over 40,000 people and which resulted in 800 deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recognizes that drowsy driving is a nationwide problem which can be traced back to poor sleep, mostly due to sleep deprivation (regularly sleeping less than six hours a night), untreated or undertreated sleep disorders, or other health problems (i.e. pain or acute infection) that can rob people of sleep. Even snoring has been independently associated with drowsy driving.

Drowsy driving is such a big public health and safety threat nationwide that resources for its prevention have been prioritized in the agenda of the federally supported Healthy People 2020 campaign.

Drowsy driving in Alabama

A year ago, Sen. Jimmy Holley, R-Elba, sponsored a bill that would require the Alabama State Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to include information about drowsy driving in its driver’s manual and licensing examination materials. It also asked the state department of education to require public high school driver’s education courses to include drowsy driving awareness instruction in its curriculum.

The bill, inspired by a mother in Andalusia who lost her son in a drowsy driving accident, was passed unanimously and is currently under legislative review.

Shelia Faulkner’s son was killed in 2008 by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel after being awake for 22 hours. Faulkner, her husband, and Sen. Holley have been working for years to draft new legislation that would penalize driver fatigue.

Faulkner’s agenda is clear cut: A driver's who's been awake for 24 consecutive hours prior and who has caused a fatal accident could be found guilty of “fatigued driving,” a crime classifiable as negligent homicide, and would potentially face a year in jail and a $25,000 fine.

However, confirming that drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel, or who were drowsy enough to cause an accident, may not be so clear cut.

While Sen. Holley has worked to draft legislation that would potentially criminalize drowsy driving, he told the Andalusia Star News last March that “the staff had a hard time determining how you could define this, or measure it.”

It can be difficult for law enforcement to determine driver fatigue as the cause of an accident. In those cases when they can, the driver will admit to being sleepy, or the absence of skid marks on the road may suggest the driver fell asleep.

Still, the effort to distinguish this dangerous driving behavior is worthwhile; penalties for driver fatigue might have a deterrent effect, reducing accident risks and damages and preventing what are, ultimately, unnecessary accidents.

The costs of drowsy driving are enormous. The monetary burden of damage to vehicles and property (both private and commercial) is high. The cost of lost loved ones to vehicular collisions caused by driver fatigue is immeasurable, but for those who survive a drowsy driving collision, injuries can be disabling enough to render them unable to work or perform basic activities of daily living.  

However, the state of Alabama is moving in the right direction. Thanks to the enactment of State Joint Resolution 71 a few years ago, November 19 has been designated Drowsy Driver Awareness Day in the state.

Are you too sleepy to drive? 

Here’s how to know when to avoid getting behind, or staying behind, the wheel:

  • You have difficulty keeping your eyes open and focused
  • Your eyelids are heavy
  • You struggle to keep your head up
  • You find yourself drifting from your lane or swerving, or you tailgate or hit roadside rumble strips
  • You have no recollection of having driven the last few miles 
  • You missed your intended exit or other traffic signs
  • You keep on yawning or rubbing your eyes  
  • You feel distracted, irritable, impatient, or restless and “can’t wait to get there”

You are your own best judge about your ability to function as a defensive driver. Just as some people who drink too much decide to take a cab or stay overnight instead of drive, a similarly appropriate response to too much fatigue is to simply not drive. Here are some tips from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

  • Pull off the road onto a safe area away from traffic, such as a parking space or parking lot, and rest until you are alert. It might only take a 15- to 20-minute nap to refresh you enough to drive safely again.
  • If you’re going on long road trips, get at least 7 hours of sleep the night before.
  • Follow the "Take a break" rule: Pull over every 100 miles or every hour to combat drowsiness.
  • Don’t eat heavy meals before heading out for a long drive, as your brain and body become sleepy during the digestion process.
  • Don’t drive solo: a companion passenger can help you stay awake and be an alternative driver, if necessary.   
  • Only drive when you know you will be the most alert. 
  • Watch those medications! Some can impair alertness or cause sleepiness. Don’t drive after taking meds you know will make you drowsy, and avoid driving if you’re taking a new medication (you won’t know if it makes you sleepy).

Ultimately, the best solution to the problem of drowsy driving is to make sure you get at least 7 hours of sleep every single night. That means avoiding sleep deprivation, treating sleep disorders, and getting help with problems like insomnia so that you can stay safe behind the wheel and, as the saying goes, “Arrive Alive.”