Health Column:

‘DWD’ (Driving While Drowsy) is a highway hazard

By Dr. Fredric M. Radoff
Blount Memorial Hospital

Most realize that DUI, or driving under the influence, is dangerous and can lead to accidents, property damage, injuries and death, and it’s illegal. Many don’t know it, but driving while drowsy or fatigued causes the same problems.

A recent scientific driving simulation study has shown that, in young healthy adults, a lack of sleep for 18 hours is equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.5. The effect of 24 hours of sleep deprivation is the same as driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.8, which is the legal limit in Tennessee.

Maggie’s Law: The National Drowsy Driving Act of 2003 was enacted because of this, and one state, New Jersey, has laws specifically making driving while drowsy a felony. "Driving while drowsy is no different than driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs," says Richard Gelula, the National Sleep Foundation’s executive director.

Up to 10 percent of motor vehicle accidents are caused by drowsy driving, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths are caused, yearly, by the dangerous activity. Too, nearly 50 percent of responders to a National Sleep Foundation poll admit to driving when drowsy while another 17 percent admit they’ve fallen asleep at the wheel.

That’s scary because people who drive when drowsy have slower reaction times, impaired judgment in dealing with driving decisions, impaired vision, and tend to pay less attention to important road signs and the actions of other drivers.

Shift workers are at increased risk for accidents from drowsy driving, but so are those who experience sleep loss, have late-night driving patterns and patterns that include long periods of time without breaks or naps, those taking sedated medications and people who suffer from untreated sleep disorders such as the sleep apnea syndrome and narcolepsy.

Some sources report that long-distance truck drivers also are at risk for drowsy driving accidents. Young male drivers are involved in a disproportionately high number of these accidents. Interactions of factors such as the consumption of alcohol, which interacts with the body’s sleepiness and increases drowsiness, increase the overall risks for unsafe driving. However, with a little planning, most of the risk factors are avoidable.

First, after getting sufficient sleep the previous night, drive mostly during the day with another person. Midnight through 8 a.m., and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. are when our normal, circadian, body rhythms make us most drowsy. Second, take a break from driving every 100 miles or two hours. If you can, take a nap for 15 to 20 minutes in a safe place, off the road, with the doors and widows of your vehicle locked. To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning, you need fresh air without exhaust fumes.

Third, don’t drink any alcoholic beverages or use medications that increase drowsiness. Caffeine works only temporarily to counteract drowsiness, and playing music and opening the window are not as effective as once thought in preventing drowsy driving.

And, don’t rely on the rumble strips along some roads to keep you alert.

Dr. Fredric M. Radoff is a neurologist specializing in sleep disorders medicine at The Center for Sleep Medicine, a partnership of Blount Memorial Hospital and East Tennessee Medical Group.

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