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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Tips for Safe Summer Driving: Avoiding Drowsy Driving

Summer vacation can be a time to relax and recharge, but can also be very hectic. Americans tend to try to pack as much into a short time as possible. If you are driving on your vacation this summer and packing in a lot of all-day activities, you could find yourself guilty of DWD (Driving While Drowsy).

As a society we are sleep-deprived. There seem to be too many things to do in a day, and we often sacrifice sleep to meet other demands. But sacrificing as little as one to two hours of sleep can affect the ability to stay awake during the day. Traffic safety experts have recognized that driving while sleepy is just as great a threat as driving under the influence:

    •Studies show that 37% of drivers report having nodded off or fallen asleep while driving; 29% report that they have experienced this problem in the last year, and 10% in the last month. That means about 75 million drivers have nodded off in the last month.

    •More than one-third (35%) of drivers who nodded off while driving within the past six months say their last experience occurred between 6:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. An additional 17% report they nodded off between 5:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m.

    •Slightly more than one in five (22%) drivers who recently experienced a drowsy driving episode report having been on the road driving for five or more hours; nearly half (47%) were driving for an hour or less.

    •National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data shows that, over the past few years, there have been about 56,000 crashes annually in which driver fatigue or drowsiness was cited by police as the cause. Those crashes caused approximately 40,000 non-fatal injuries and 1,550 fatal injuries per year.

If you are packing in a full day at a theme park or a beach, you should be aware that all the activity under a hot sun will dehydrate, weaken, and tire you. Planning to hit the road for a long trip after a full day's activities could set you up for disaster. Nodding off at the wheel for only a very short time, which sleep experts refer to as microsleep, is extremely dangerous. Microsleep is an episode in which someone who is sleep-deprived nods off from a fraction of a second up to thirty seconds. If you are traveling at highway speeds of up to 70 mph, your car will travel 102 feet in just one second. Dozing off for only a second or two is long enough for your vehicle to leave the road or veer into the path of another vehicle.

Are you at risk for driving while drowsy? Before you drive, check to see if you are:

    •Sleep-deprived or fatigued (6 hours of sleep or less triples your risk)
    •Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia), poor quality sleep, or a sleep debt
    •Driving long distances without proper rest breaks
    •Driving through the night, in mid-afternoon, or when you would normally be asleep
    •Taking sedating medications (antidepressants, cold tablets, antihistamines)
    •Drinking even small amounts of alcohol
    •Driving alone or on a long, rural, dark or boring road

Many motorists try to drive late at night to avoid traffic congestion on long trips. If you are planning a long trip, don't make the mistake of planning to drive at a time other than your normal waking hours. Don’t drive long distances after a full day of vacation activities.

When you are driving, these are the signs that you should pull off the road and rest:

    •Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
    •Daydreaming; wandering/disconnected thoughts
    •Trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs
    •Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
    •Trouble keeping your head up
    •Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
    •Feeling restless and irritable

The National Sleep Foundation offers the following tips for drivers before hitting the road:

    •Get a good night's sleep. While this varies from individual to individual, sleep experts recommend between 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults and 8 1/2-9 1/2 for teens.
    •Plan to drive long trips with a companion. Passengers can help look for early warning signs of fatigue or switch drivers when needed. Passengers should stay awake to talk to the driver.
    •Schedule regular stops every 100 miles or every two hours.
    •Avoid alcohol and medications (over-the-counter or prescribed) that may impair performance. Alcohol interacts with fatigue, increasing its effects - just like drinking on an empty stomach.

Once you are on the road, follow these guidelines to avoid driving while drowsy:

    •Take a 15 to 20-minute nap. More than a 20-minute nap can make you groggy for at least five minutes after awakening.
    •Consume the equivalent of two cups of coffee. Caffeine is available in various forms (e.g. soft drinks, energy drinks, coffee, tea, chewing gum, and tablets) and amounts; but remember that caffeine takes about 30 minutes to enter the bloodstream and will not greatly affect those who regularly consume it. Try taking caffeine and then a short nap to get the benefits of both.
    •If you are sleep-deprived, don't rely on heavily caffeinated drinks to keep you awake. Once the caffeine wears off, your body will demand sleep.

Have a safe and enjoyable summer vacation.

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