Asleep @ the Wheel
by: Lauren Zimmerman-Meade
6 minute read
You’re driving down the NYS Thruway on a Saturday morning with some friends from school, just getting into the snowcapped Catskill Mountains for an exciting weekend of hiking and decompressing. It’s a beautiful, bright, 55° sunny day in early March, “Fool’s Spring” if you follow the true New York State 12-season weather guide. You’re in the passenger seat of your roommate’s hand-me-down four-door sedan, soaking in the sunshine and free Vitamin D, recalling the virtual party you had with friends last night that ran into the wee hours. Your roommate is driving slowly, safely; you feel super secure in their skills. You start to drift off, already exhausted but excited for the weekend plans.
the car is shaking
your friends are screaming
you open your eyes in a flash, ignoring the crusty sand that’s taken over your eyelashes and find yourself staring straight into the grill of an 18-wheeler
you can read the word “MACK®” as close as if you had fallen asleep on it in an open textbook
your heart drops
your world flashes before your eyes
you start screaming too
you remember you left the toilet seat up at home and Binxy cat might try to get in it
your friends start laughing.
They’re hysterical. Pointing at you, crying from smiling so hard. As your eyes adjust better, you realize you’ve been had. The driver has pulled up just behind the cab of a truck being towed at a rest stop, facing backwards, staring you down. Everyone is safe, the car is parked, there is no danger…
But there is.
In 2017 the GHSA reported that lack of sleep is akin to the effects of driving under the influence of alcohol. In fact, not sleeping for 24 hours at a time could simulate driving with a .10% Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), a figure that is .02% over the legally drunk limit of .08% enforced in all States. They also concluded that 328,000 crashes occur annually from drowsy driving and that 50% of these crashes are attributed to drivers younger than 25 years old.1
Let’s zoom right in on that: you can get your driver’s permit at 16 years old. If half of drowsy crashes happen with drivers younger than 25, that’s only a 9-year span of driver experience accounting for 50% of the crashes in this category. Now, I’m no Einstein in the math department, but this startling artihmatic means that in the other 75+ years of potential driving in a person’s life, there is no time riskier for driving drowsy than in the first 9 years you’re on the road. That right there is why this topic is so important to drive home to teens and young adults!
The practical joke in our story earlier is one many of us car sleepers, present writer included, have probably had pulled on them. It is, of course, meant in jest, but all too often folks on our roadways find themselves nodding off behind the wheel, facing a similar scenario, only they’re still driving, on the highway, doing 65 mph, and the truck is getting closer. Drowsy driving is absolutely considered impaired driving, but it is the only one of the "4Ds of impairment" that often gets left in the dark. The others (drunk, drugged, and distracted) we hear about consistently as traffic safety hazards with celebrity spokespeople spreading the messages all over social media. So why isn’t drowsy trending in the same way?
Generally, in the field we hear excuses for driving tired like “well, I wasn’t tired when I started driving” or “I’m fine, I don’t sleep much anyway”. We tend to ignore the simple signs that signal that we too could be a drowsy driver. We wear our hectic lives with pride like a racecar driver does a sponsor patch. Especially here in February 2021, we need to take stock of how the last year has impacted us, and our sleep. Our bodies and brains are overtaxed and under maintained; they’re focused on schoolwork, sports, SADD club and social situations. We forget to take the time to mind our mind, tune out and turn off, decompress and lie down. But our busy-ness is no excuse for drowsiness. Driving impaired is a conscious choice, whether distracted by devices or lulled into La La Land by lack of sleep. When we get behind the wheel knowing we’ve ignored our body’s repeated requests for rest, we are making a decision to ignore the fourth "D" of impairment and roll the dice on our safety.
So the answer as to why this is often the last "D" mentioned in the impairment discussion is the lack of common knowledge around the danger of drowsiness and our blind belief that we can suppress the Sandman. As we all recover and rebound from our required isolations, reemerge into the world and retake the roads, we need to realize we’re all at risk because we all need sleep. We need to take a step back, set some boundaries, and recapture rest from our chaotic calendars before we find ourselves most literally… asleep at the wheel.
Here are some helpful tips to deter you from drowsy driving2:
- Drive during your normal wake times, during the day.
- Obtain the recommended amount of sleep per night (more here), & practice good sleep habits/hygiene (more here).
- If driving long distances, take breaks frequently, drive with a passenger if possible.
- Adjust the interior temperature to be cool.
- Avoid using sleep aides the night before driving.
- Read medication labels for side effects and avoid driving when using ones that can make you sleepy.
- If you are constantly sleepy, talk to your doctor, as this can be a sign of a sleep disorder or find a sleep center near you.
- Take the quick Sleep Quiz to understand your risk.
Identifying drowsiness behind the wheel:
- Heavy eyelids, rubbing eyes, or prolonged blinking
- Head bobbing or nodding off
- Weaving, drifting out of your lane, hitting rumble strips
- Difficulty remembering the last couple miles driven
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
- Missing stop signs or other street signs
As we drive straight into Daylight Savings Time, springing ahead next week on March 14th, help avoid falling asleep @ the wheel. Share this post and @ your friends to help save a life!
AND if you’re a SUNY college student, check out the “Stay Awake! Stay Alive!” Challenge open now!
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With thanks to:
1 Fischer, P., 2017. WAKE UP CALL! Understanding Drowsy Driving and What States Can Do. [online] Ghsa.org. Available at: <https://www.ghsa.org/sites/default/files/2017-02/Drowsy%202016-U.pdf>.
2 Stony Brook University’s School of Health Technology and Management. 2017. Practicing Good Sleep Habits. [online] Available at: <http://stopdrowsydriving.org>