March 20, 2003

Safety groups warn of dangers of driving when fatigued

Washington, D.C. – According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), fatigue and drowsiness are the principal causes for approximately 100,000 reported crashes a year. Annually, more than 71,000 people have suffered injuries and 1,500 have died from accidents involving a driver falling asleep at the wheel.

These statistics are conservative estimates, since many accidents involving fatigue or drowsiness go undetected. Although there are no tests that can measure or quantify a driver’s level of fatigue at an accident site, there are some common characteristics that are found in accidents related to fatigue or sleepiness, including:

  • The accident occurs during late evening, early morning or mid-afternoon hours.

  • The accident is serious – fatigued drivers frequently fail to brake before the crash, causing a greater crash impact.
  • The accident involves a single car that has run off the road.
  • The accident shows no indication that the driver tried to prevent the crash (i.e. skid marks).
  • The accident involves a single driver with no passengers.

Fatigue is physically and mentally impairing – with side effects such as exhaustion, distraction, drowsiness and sleepiness. In a driving situation, fatigue slows a driver’s reaction time, makes the driver less alert and challenges his/her ability to process information.

Warning signs include:

  • You can’t recall the last few miles driven.

  • You have difficulty focusing and keeping your eyes open.
  • You can’t keep your head up.
  • You drift from your lane – sometimes jerking the car back into your lane.
  • You daydream or have disconnected thoughts.
  • You misjudge traffic situations.
  • You miss traffic signs.
  • You vary your vehicle speed for no apparent reason.
  • You feel impatient and begin to make hasty driving decisions.

In a 1999 National Sleep Foundation study, 62 percent of all adults polled reported that, during the prior year, they had experienced driving a car or other vehicle while feeling drowsy. In the same study, 27 percent reported having dozed off while driving.

The Foundation recommends these precautions:

  • Make sure you get adequate sleep the night before a trip. (Studies show the typical person requires seven to eight hours of sleep each night.)

  • Limit your nighttime and early morning driving; avoid driving between midnight and 6:00 a.m.
  • Avoid long drives after work.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol – even minimal amounts.
  • Adjust your car’s environment to keep you alert and awake. Keep the inside temperature cool in the summer by opening windows or turning on air conditioning; use sparing amounts of heat in the winter. Your radio can also be a device for keeping you alert – using volume controls and varying channels.
  • Avoid using cruise control, so you are engaged in the driving process.
  • Take frequent breaks, ideally stopping every two hours. These breaks are a good opportunity to stretch, get some exercise and eat light meals or snacks.
  • Keep good posture when driving. Drive with your head up, shoulders back, buttocks against the back of the seat and legs flexed at about a 45-degree angle.
  • Don’t let your eyes become hypnotized or fatigued. Wear sunglasses to fight glare during the day.
  • Share the driving with a friend, particularly on longer trips when you’ll be driving late at night or early in the morning.
  • If you are taking medication, find out from your doctor or pharmacist if your medication will affect your driving.

  • If these fatigue prevention measures fail, and you feel your driving is an
    endangerment to yourself or others, stop driving. Go to a hotel, if necessary, where you can sleep.

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