By Jeffrey P. Barasch, M.D., FACCP, FAASM
The Center for Sleep Medicine at The Valley Hospital
The engineer at the helm of the Metro North train that derailed in the Bronx on Sunday, December 1, may have fallen asleep at the controls right before the train went off the track, according to some reports. This tragic accident serves as a poignant reminder of the dangers of drowsy driving.
The fact is, sleepiness and driving is a dangerous combination. While most people are aware of the dangers of drinking and driving, they don’t realize that sleepiness can impair driving performance as much as or more so than alcohol. Like alcohol, sleepiness slows reaction time, decreases vigilance and awareness, and impairs judgment, all of which increase your risk of crashing. During even a brief lapse of attention, a vehicle can move into another lane, off the road, or into oncoming traffic. This can occur even without the driver closing his or her eyes or being aware of falling asleep.
Drowsy driving has many causes, including insufficient or poor night-time sleep, shiftwork, medications or alcohol, or a variety of sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea or narcolepsy.
In a 2012 study, The American Automobile Association estimated that drowsy driving was responsible for 7 percent of all crashes in which a passenger vehicle was towed, 13 percent of crashes that resulted in a person being admitted to a hospital, and 16.5 percent of fatal crashes involved a drowsy driver.
In addition, fatigue and inattention due to sleep deprivation are considered significant factors in several disastrous accidents, including the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, the 1986 nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl and the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker.
Here are some signs that mean you should stop 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; or
• Feeling restless and irritable.
In view of the dangers of drowsy driving, several states are considering legislation that would allow police to charge drowsy drivers with criminal negligence if they injure or kill someone while driving if they have not had adequate sleep. In fact, in 2003 New Jersey became the first state to do so with the passage of “Maggie’s Law.” The law states that a sleep-deprived driver qualifies as a reckless driver who can be convicted of vehicular homicide.
To avoid drowsy driving:
• Get adequate sleep—most adults need 7-9 hours to maintain proper alertness during the day.
• Schedule proper breaks—about every 100 miles or 2 hours during long trips.
• Arrange for a travel companion—someone to talk with and share the driving.
• Avoid alcohol and sedating medications—check your labels or ask your doctor.
• If you are sleepy in spite of adequate sleep, consider the possibility that a sleep disorder is present.
If you regularly suffer from excessive daytime drowsiness, you may have a sleep disorder and consultation with a sleep specialist may be warranted.