Falling Asleep at the Wheel

D_Paige.jpg (7312 bytes)Have you ever been driving alone perhaps late at night (or for you sleep specialists, the morning after a night shift) and the lights on the road start to blur, the traffic lines start running together, and your thoughts become disconnected? According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) 2000 Omnibus Sleep in America survey, 51% of all adults surveyed in the prior year reported feeling drowsy while driving a car or other vehicle and 17% actually fell asleep at the wheel. An estimated $12.5 billion per year has been attributed to accidents due to drowsy driving as well as diminished productivity and property damage. These statistics have created quite a concern for the public and especially for sleep specialists.

Since there is no test to determine sleepiness, no standardized criteria for determining whether the driver is sleepy, and little or no police training to identify the drowsiness crash factor, it is difficult to find a solution to this ongoing dilemma. Educating the public is key and the NSF took steps to remedy this growing problem by launching its Drive Alert… Arrive Alive® campaign in 1993. In order to reduce the number of sleep-related crashes, this campaign is working to:

  • Increase public awareness of the risks of drowsy driving and how to avoid them through educational materials, the media, and state and national programs;
  • Reach at-risk groups: youth, shift workers, commercial drivers, business travelers, and undiagnosed sleep-disorder sufferers;
  • Collaborate with national, state, and local traffic safety organizations to better define the scope of the problem and identify solutions;
  • Create working partnerships with safety-related and other concerned industries/corporations;
  • Advocate effective countermeasures, including continuous shoulder rumble strips on rural interstates;
  • Promote research and become the preeminent national clearinghouse of drowsy driving information.1

Theresa Shumard has complemented the NSF’s efforts by writing an article on preventing drowsy driving (see page 26). She emphasizes the importance of implementing official educational programs, gathering actual drowsy-driving accident data, and establishing a reporting mechanism. Noting the NSF’s recent call for a national consensus to implement solutions, Shumard says that diverse professionals from a variety of health, safety, injury prevention, and transportation backgrounds have recommended processes for better quantifying the effects of sleep deprivation on transportation, the workplace, and public health. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is also aware of the risk of driving drowsy and addressed young males, shift workers, and shift work supervisors in its report, Development and Testing of Countermeasures for Fatigue Related Highway Crashes. Shumard gives interesting excerpts from the report by quoting those surveyed and lists NHTSA’s recommendations, which include developing strategies that can effectively segment and target each high-risk group, developing materials for an awareness campaign with secondary intermediaries who have potential influence, and considering testing media-based approaches in the employment setting that directly target high-risk groups.

From April 1 to April 7, the NSF will be hosting “Sleep for Success” in Washington, DC, which will promote the importance of quality sleep for health, productivity, and safety issues. Scheduled activities include 2002 Sleep in America poll results, NSF’s 2nd Annual Gala, and a public policy forum. The campaign coincides with the beginning of daylight savings time when we lose that crucial hour of sleep. To obtain additional information, call (202) 347-3471 ext 201, or visit www.sleepfoundation.org.

Be aware that if you start drifting from lane to lane, yawn repeatedly, or have trouble keeping your head up, you are driving drowsy. Educate yourselves and your patients. They will thank you for helping them stay awake at the wheel and consequently for saving their lives.

Paige Smith, Editor
[email protected] 

1. National Sleep Foundation. National campaign on drowsy driving. Available at: http://www.sleepfoundation.org/activities/international.html. Accessed January 28, 2002.