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Sharp Health News

Don’t let drowsy driving lead to disaster

Nov. 10, 2021

Tired woman yawning while driving car

Whether it’s due to the late-night binge of a favorite show, working more than an 8-hour shift or cramming before an exam, most people can admit to driving while drowsy. In fact, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), about 40% of drivers have admitted not only to driving while feeling a bit sleepy, but to falling asleep while behind the wheel.

“Drowsy driving refers to anyone operating a motor vehicle while sleepy, fatigued and not operating in full cognitive function,” says Dr. Ran Regev, a board-certified emergency medicine doctor affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. “This can be due to several reasons, but usually happens due to lack of sleep, or lack of effective sleep.”

While we hear a lot about the hazard of driving while intoxicated, drowsy driving can be nearly as dangerous. Like driving under the influence, it makes drivers less attentive, slows reaction times and affects drivers’ ability to make clear decisions. In fact, fatigued drivers are three times more likely to be in a car crash than other drivers.

The effects of driving while fatigued
The National Institutes of Health published a study that found that after 17 hours without sleep, performance by study participants on tests measuring reaction times, vigilance, multi-tasking and hand-eye coordination was equal to or worse than that of participants who had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. After 24 hours of nonstop wakefulness, their performance met that of someone with 0.1% BAC. The BAC limit to legally drive in the U.S. is 0.08%.

Additionally, drowsy driving is estimated to be responsible for approximately 328,000 crashes, 109,000 injury crashes and 6,400 fatal crashes each year, the NSC reports. People under the age of 25 — males especially — are responsible for up to half of the crashes related to drowsy driving.

“We see patients in the emergency room who have been involved in a major vehicle accident due to drowsy driving, but many people may not readily admit to it,” Dr. Regev says. “And others may have been involved in an accident because the driver of another vehicle was a fatigued driver.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there are a variety of reasons people might drive while drowsy. Those at highest risk include:

  • Drivers who do not get enough sleep, including college students
  • Commercial drivers who operate vehicles such as tow trucks, tractor trailers and buses
  • Shift workers who work the night shift or long shifts
  • Drivers with untreated sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea
  • Drivers who use medications that make them sleepy

“Shift work poses high risks for drowsy driving, as the workers’ sleep cycles get disrupted, causing lack of effective, restful sleep,” Dr. Regev explains. “Individuals who simply drive at night are at risk, as most people are naturally more sleepy at night. And others may have ineffective sleep because of common issues such as sleep apnea, anxiety or insomnia, putting them at grave risk for drowsy driving.”

Avoiding drowsy driving
So, how do you know if you’re awake enough to safely drive? First, make sure you regularly get enough sleep by sticking to a sleep schedule, seek care if you struggle to get enough effective sleep, and avoid the use of alcohol or medications that make you sleepy.

Signs of drowsiness when driving include:

  • Yawning or blinking frequently
  • Having trouble keeping your eyes open or head up
  • Having difficulty remembering the past few miles driven
  • Daydreaming or having wandering thoughts
  • Feeling irritable and restless
  • Missing road signs or your exit
  • Drifting from your lane or onto the shoulder of the road, or coming too close to the cars in front of you

If you recognize any of the signs, but absolutely must carry on, Dr. Regev recommends you pull over at a safe spot and take a 20-minute “power nap.” If there is another driver with you, take turns driving while the other person naps.

AAA also recommends driving only during times when you are usually awake, scheduling a break every two hours or 100 miles, and drinking a caffeinated beverage 30 minutes before driving. However, beware of advice to find distractions to keep you awake.

“Other methods — opening the window, cranking up the radio, singing — have actually been found to be minimally effective, and could actually be distracting and lead to an accident,” he says. “This is especially true for someone who is already not functioning at their full mental capacity.”

The best solution for drowsy driving is not to drive unless you get enough sleep and feel well-rested. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society, most adults should have seven or more hours each night to avoid the risks associated with inadequate sleep — including injury or death caused by drowsy driving.

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