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The Startling Dangers of Drowsy Driving

One in three drivers admit to getting behind the wheel while sleep-deprived. The effects can be fatal, but are also avoidable if you follow this key advice.

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Letting out a big yawn and rubbing your eyes as you slide into the driver’s seat with a large latte—it doesn’t sound like the makings of a deadly car accident. But driving on too little sleep can be just as dangerous as driving with too much alcohol in your system.

A new public service announcement released today by the Huffington Post, in collaboration with Uber, sheds light on what’s at stake when someone gets behind the wheel on too little sleep: “I was driving back from Columbia, South Carolina. I fell asleep at the wheel for three to five seconds. Within those three to five seconds my whole entire life changed,” says Adam Gorlitzky, who is now bound to a wheelchair. “You have that macho mentality where you say, ‘I’m almost home.’ But if I were to talk to my 19-year-old self, I would say that you’re not invincible.”

According to a 2014 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 21% of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver. That’s not far behind drunk driving: Alcohol accounts for 31% of traffic-related deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Just like alcohol, drowsiness diminishes your ability to drive in many ways: It slows down reaction time, impairs decision-making ability, limits awareness of what’s going on around you, creates lapses in attention, and can even cause bouts of “microsleep”—dozing off for a few seconds without realizing it.

“In that instant, you could miss a critical event, like somebody braking or somebody crossing lanes, and that’s when you get into an accident,” explains Hans P.A. Van Dongen, Ph.D., director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University—Spokane.

The scariest part: “The sleeper’s eyes may remain open during a microsleep,” says Nathaniel F. Watson, M.D., M.S.C., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Microsleeps often are unnoticed by the sleeper.”

Not surprisingly, those who work night shifts are at risk for experiencing microsleep. But so is anyone who has accumulated a “sleep debt,” the effect of logging less than seven hours of shut-eye a night. Miss an hour here or there and you can probably pay it back on the weekend, but let it add up and you enter a state of chronic sleep deprivation.

“Week after week after week, you start building up this cumulative effect that you can’t really pay back,” says Van Dongen. “Insufficient sleep becomes your ‘new norm.’” This may explain why one in three drivers admit to drowsy driving at some point in the past month even though, according to AAA’s 2015 Traffic Safety Culture Index, 97% of drivers agree it’s a completely unacceptable behavior.

To keep yourself safe the next time you go to turn that key, follow these tips:

1. Make up for missed hours.

“Anyone who can get extra sleep is by definition sleep-deprived,” says William Dement, Ph.D., founder of the Sleep Research Center at Stanford University, who is considered the father of modern-day sleep studies and was part of the team that discovered REM sleep in the 1950s. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults log at least seven hours of sleep each night. If you’ve been falling short, aim for more than seven hours and take brief daytime naps in the early afternoon, if possible, advises Watson. “However, it can take time to pay off your sleep debt,” he warns. “One weekend of extra sleep may not be enough to repay the sleep debt that you accumulate during the workweek.”

2. But more importantly, aim for quality sleep.

“You need to go into REM sleep, the deep sleep that rejuvenates our bodies and minds,” says Leadley, who advises going to bed and waking up at a regular time each day. “Our sleep is regulated by our circadian rhythm and when we disrupt that rhythm, we disrupt our sleep,” she says.


Related: The Surprising Way Your Sleep Patterns Affect Your Weight


 

3. Think 30 minutes in advance.

We don’t usually realize how exhausted we are until we’re cruising down the highway, struggling to keep our eyes open. “If you get to this point, it’s too late,” says Van Dongen. “Find a parking spot right away because you are heading toward an accident. A smarter approach: Assess your sleepiness a half-hour before you get behind the wheel. If you’re feeling fatigued, take a 20-minute nap.

It may help to remember the life-saving credo that Dement teaches his students at Stanford: “Drowsiness is red alert!” If your eyelids feel heavy do not drive and if you’re already on the road, pull over, he says.

4. Use common-sense questioning.

Lauri Leadley, a clinical sleep educator and president of Valley Sleep Center in Phoenix, Arizona, suggests asking yourself the following: Did you get enough sleep last night? Were you feeling tired as you went about your daily activities? Are you yawning? Are you forgetting things? Do you feel like you need a shot of caffeine to stay awake? “These are all signs that you are too tired to drive,” says Leadley.

5. Get strategic with your coffee intake.

“Although caffeine can give your alertness a short-term boost when used in moderation, its effects can wear off quickly, especially if you’ve built up a tolerance to caffeine by consuming it regularly,” says Watson. So, save it for when you really need it—like when you feel sleepy but must get behind the wheel. And remember: Coffee is a crutch, not a solution.

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