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By Jim Kerr

Fatigue is an often-overlooked factor in driving safety, but in a recently released American study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety – Asleep at the Wheel: The Prevalence and Impact of Drowsy Driving – some interesting, and even frightening facts came to light. In a national telephone survey, 41 per cent of drivers admit to having “fallen asleep or nodded off” while driving. More than 25 per cent of drivers admitted to having driven when they were so sleepy they had a hard time keeping their eyes open!

The study also found drivers aged 16 to 24 were the most likely to report having fallen asleep while driving and more men reported having fallen asleep while driving than women. It is estimated that over 13 per cent of all accidents where a person was admitted to hospital and 16.5 per cent of fatal crashes involved a drowsy driver.

In case you think this only happens to those driving long distances, three out of five drivers reported they had been driving for less than an hour before they fell asleep. It’s time to wake up and recognize this as a serious problem on our roads.

How do you avoid this danger while you are driving? Here are some tips from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. First, get adequate and quality sleep before a trip. There are no “magic” techniques or substances than can “prop up” a fatigued driver.

Avoid alcohol and heavy foods. Coffee, cocoa, pop and other caffeine-type drinks may give you a boost, but only for a short while. A few minutes later you may find yourself asleep at the wheel.

Beware of the effects of medications. Medications that may be fine for one person can make another drowsy, so every person needs to take responsibility for themselves. If you feel drowsy, don’t drive.

If you are driving, stop frequently and take a rest. Stop at a safe place and take a nap. An hour stop or even an overnight stay may seem inconvenient, but it is much better than being involved in an accident.

Driving with a companion so you can switch drivers, and talking with passengers also helps to stay alert. Interestingly, I have found three Limo drivers who claim that eating sunflower seeds is a good way to stay alert. Perhaps it is the mental concentration required to shell them that keeps them alert, but even this won’t replace a good night’s sleep.

Avoid driving during peak “drowsy” times. This includes from 2 pm to 5 pm (those heavy lunches and tiring workdays) and from 10 pm to 6 pm. Not only will this help you from being drowsy, it will also mean you are not on the road when other drowsy drivers are out there.

Perhaps you are not in the 41 per cent of drivers who have fallen asleep at the wheel, but they can still affect you. Try to recognize problem drivers before you get close to them. If you see drivers wandering in their lane even slightly, or drifting to one side, they may be drowsy. If a driver varies speed continuously, they may be drowsy. If they don’t dim their lights at night until they are very close, they may be drowsy. Be prepared to take avoiding action if necessary, including driving into the ditch if you have too. It is always better to be stuck in a ditch than hit another vehicle head-on on the highway.

Skilled drivers are always looking for an escape route. It may be the highway shoulder or a ditch, but there is almost always an alternative to hitting another vehicle. Skilled drivers also know that reaction times slow as they become tired, so avoiding problems becomes more difficult. Drowsiness while driving is a serious problem. Protect yourself and others by ensuring you are well rested before travelling.

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