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Drowsy Driving Spells Disaster


Just about everyone can relate to that “nodding off” feeling after lunch,or that sudden wave of insuppressible yawning. In the middle of the day, our body temperature dips slightly, as do the alerting signals from our brain. Under normal circumstances this shouldn’t be a problem. But for the millions of Americans that are even mildly sleep deprived, it can spell disaster.

Nodding Off at the Wheel

Every year, millions of accidents on our roads and in the workplace are directly attributed to sleep deprivation. Nodding off for a second or two in front of the TV is one thing, but while driving a car at 60 miles per hour, it’s no small matter. Behind the wheel, you’ll travel between 90 and 180 feet during that second or two; that’s plenty of distance to unintentionally change lanes or miss a curve.

In fact, while you were reading the preceding paragraphs, there were three motor vehicle accidents caused by a drowsy driver. Every three minutes there is a motor vehicle injurydue to drowsy driving; and within the next hour, drowsy driving will be attributed to a traffic fatality.

The Science of Sleep Deprivation

Even modest sleep loss over a week’s time (getting only six hours of sleep per night versus seven and a half to eight hours) can accumulate a sleep deficit that creates an irresistible tendency to fall asleep during any activity—including driving. If it happens to coincide with the natural dips in our alertness—such as in the early afternoon or late evening—the effects are compounded. Not surprisingly, that’s when most motor vehicle accidents occur.

Aside from the danger of flat-out falling asleep, sleep deprivation systematically erodes our physical and cognitive performance. Our reaction times and speed of thought are dulled. In fact, studies show that 17–19 hours without sleep can impair performance equivalent to or worse than a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%! That means if you get up at 6:30 a.m. and are out driving at 11:30 p.m. that night, your reaction time could be impaired by as much as 50 percent.

More evidence of sleep’s role in highway safety can be found in statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It reports that on the Monday following the switch to Daylight Saving Time each the spring—when nearly everyone loses an hour of sleep—our highways experience a 17 percent increase in traffic accidents compared to the preceding and following Mondays. 

Be Cautious

Like alcohol, sleep deprivation not only creates a physical impairment but it is often accompanied by a lack of awareness of the impairment itself: we overestimate our abilities. “I’m fine” are often the last words we hear from a driver who’s had one too many drinks. Sleep deprivation seems to play the same trick on our good judgment, resulting in unsafe behaviors.  

Getting enough quality sleep plays a critical role in our overall health and well-being, including our safety. Strive to get seven and a half to eight hours of good sleep each and every night and don’t ignore those telltale signs of sleepiness. Sleep well!

©2010 Select Comfort