Col. Gregory Belenky, a sleep expert from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, gave some tips on The Early Show for staying awake and alert on the road.
It is estimated that 30.8 million people will hit the road to visit families over the Thanksgiving holiday. With so much to be done, people often put themselves at risk of driving while drowsy. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates annually there are approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes involving drowsiness and fatigue as the principal factor.
The National Sleep Foundation found 17 percent of adult drivers report dozing off while driving at least once in the past year and 51 percent of adults who drive say they have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year. However, it is difficult to attribute crashes to sleepiness because there is no test to determine its presence, as there is for intoxication.
Drivers are at risk of falling asleep at the wheel if they are sleep-deprived or fatigued; driving long distances without rest breaks; driving through the night, the early afternoon or at other times when they are normally asleep; taking medication that increases sleepiness or drinking alcohol; driving alone; driving on long, rural, boring roads; and are frequent travelers.
Sleep-related crashes are most common in young people, who tend to stay up late, sleep too little and drive at night.
About 25 million Americans are rotating shift workers. Studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent of those with non-traditional work schedules have had a fatigue-related driving mishap within the last year. The drive home from work after the night shift is likely to be a particularly dangerous one.
Truck drivers are especially susceptible to fatigue-related crashes. In addition to the high number of miles driven each year, many truckers may drive during the night when the body is sleepiest. Truckers may also have a high prevalence of a sleep and breathing disorder called sleep apnea. Studies suggest truck-driver fatigue may be a contributing factor in at least 30 to 40 percent of all heavy truck accidents.
Belenky emphasized that the best way to prevent falling asleep on the road is to get a good night sleep before a long drive. Most people don't take naps because they stay up late packing the night before a trip.
A person who finds himself about to nod off while driving should absolutely pull over at a rest stop buy a cup of coffee and then take a 30 - 40 minute nap — in that order because it takes about 30 minutes for the caffeine to take effect. If you find yourself driving between midnight and 8:10 a.m. — the time the body is used to sleeping — you should have passenger look for early warning signs of fatigue or switch with the driver when needed. Passengers should stay awake to talk to the driver. Also, it is helpful to have caffeine on hand.
The early warning signs of fatigue in drivers are those who can't remember the last few miles driven, drift from their lanes or hit a rumble strip, experience wandering or disconnected thoughts, yawn repeatedly, have difficulty focusing or keeping their eyes open, tailgate or miss traffic signs, have trouble keeping their head up and keep jerking their vehicles back into the lane
People who suffer frequent daytime sleepiness should consult their physicians or a local sleep disorders center for diagnosis and treatment if they have difficulty sleeping at night often, and/or snore loudly every night.
People tend to fall asleep more on high-speed, long, boring, rural highways. There are transportation initiatives to help keep drivers awake, such as building more service stations and installing rumble strips along the roadsides.