September 1, 1995 in City

Drowsy Drivers Raise Highway Death Toll Some Suspect Holiday Weekends Even More Dangerous

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Lindy Cater figures the empty coffee can was her downfall.

“I’m usually tanked up on coffee,” she said. “We didn’t have any in the house.”

So Cater started her weekly drive from her Spokane home to her Seattle job without her usual dose of caffeine that Sunday afternoon in 1992. She set the cruise control and settled in for the long commute.

“I was just past Moses Lake…It’s pretty flat and boring,” recalled Cater, who since has quit the Seattle job. “I just zonked out. I fell into a really hard sleep.”

Cater remembers feeling her flashy red Celica veer off Interstate 90. She remembers being knocked around violently as it rolled.

Wide awake by the time the car settled back on its wheels, Cater unfastened her seat belt and stepped out, unhurt. The Celica, new that year, was totalled.

“I do realize how lucky I am to be alive,” she said.

At least 25 people in Washington were not as lucky last year, according to the Washington State Patrol. They were killed in accidents when they or someone else fell asleep at the wheel.

The Idaho Department of Transportation blames drowsiness for 44 deaths in the last three years.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates at least 50,000 accidents a year are caused by drowsiness. In 1992, accidents caused by sleepy drivers killed at least 1,436 Americans.

The actual numbers undoubtedly are far higher, said Dr. Allan Pack, medical director for the National Sleep Foundation, which launched a “Drive Alert, Arrive Alive” campaign last year.

“It’s unlike alcohol where you have a definite test” to show the cause of an accident, said Pack, a medical professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Once they have a crash, there will be no sign of impairment. They’re immediately awake.”

One-quarter of the respondents in a New York survey last year said they had fallen asleep at the wheel. Of those who had admitted falling asleep, a quarter said they wrecked their cars as a result.

WSP Sgt. Chris Powell suspects there are more drowsy drivers during holiday weekends than at other times. Labor Day traditionally is the deadliest weekend for driving in Washington.

“When you put more traffic on (the road) and you get people who have been out boating, camping, hiking, that kind of thing, it certainly puts people at greater risk,” he said.

While no one has data to back up the claim, WSP troopers say drivers are most likely to fall asleep on long, flat stretches of highway.

The problem is “very, very serious in Eastern Washington,” said Northwest Ford Dealers spokeswoman Deanna Zachrisson, who is compiling accident data for the “Drive Alert” campaign in Washington.

U.S. Highway 2 east of Davenport, Interstate 82 north of Tri-Cities and rural portions of I-90 are some of the worst stretches of road in the state, Zachrisson said. For instance, troopers believe a truck driver killed in July fell asleep while driving I-90 near Ritzville.

While there’s been no comprehensive study of drowsy driving, Pack said there is plenty of evidence showing men in their teens and early 20s are more likely than others to nod off at the wheel.

“They’re chronically sleep deprived. They’re more likely to be driving at night,” said Pack, who started studying accidents after his son, then 21, fell asleep at the wheel two years ago. His car crossed the center line on a busy highway and hit another car, killing its driver.

Other at-risk groups are those who work graveyard shifts and people with sleeping disorders.

One Wisconsin study of 600 drivers showed that people suffering from sleep apnea, who briefly stop breathing during sleep, are at least three times more likely to be involved in accidents than sound sleepers. They were 8-1/2 times more likely than others to be involved in a second accident.

The American Automobile Association lists “driver fatigue” as the cause of 45 percent of accidents involving truckers. A National Transportation Safety Board study concluded that fatigue causes 31 percent of the accidents that kill truckers.

The law says truckers can drive no more than 10 hours out of every 24; it doesn’t say they have to sleep.

The state Department of Transportation is fighting fatigue-caused accidents with “rumble strips” along some portions of I-90. The grooves, which are cut into shoulder pavement, are supposed to jolt drivers awake if they drift out of traffic lanes.

The state also has put up signs suggesting drivers stop at the next rest stop if they’re feeling drowsy. A short nap - not pinching yourself, turning up the radio or rolling down the windows - is the only way to fight sleepiness, said Pack.

People who say cars or driving make them sleepy simply aren’t getting enough sleep, said Pack.

“The situation doesn’t make you sleepy, but it unmasks sleepiness,” he said.

, DataTimes MEMO: IDAHO HEADLINE: Fatigue fatal

This sidebar appeared with the story: SLEEP FOUNDATION OFFERS SAFE DRIVING TIPS The National Sleep Foundation offers these tips to avoid drowsy driving: Drive only during hours you’re normally awake. Trade off driving duty if possible. Sleeping passengers should ride in the back seat. Sitting next to someone who is sleeping can make a driver drowsy. Schedule a break every two hours or 100 miles. Take a break during the mid-afternoon, when most people begin feeling drowsy. A driver should pull over and take a short nap, or let someone else drive, if the driver: Works to keep eyes open. Wants to prop up head. Can’t stop yawning. Doesn’t remember driving the last few miles. Has trouble concentrating. Allows the car to drift outside of its lane.

IDAHO HEADLINE: Fatigue fatal

This sidebar appeared with the story: SLEEP FOUNDATION OFFERS SAFE DRIVING TIPS The National Sleep Foundation offers these tips to avoid drowsy driving: Drive only during hours you’re normally awake. Trade off driving duty if possible. Sleeping passengers should ride in the back seat. Sitting next to someone who is sleeping can make a driver drowsy. Schedule a break every two hours or 100 miles. Take a break during the mid-afternoon, when most people begin feeling drowsy. A driver should pull over and take a short nap, or let someone else drive, if the driver: Works to keep eyes open. Wants to prop up head. Can’t stop yawning. Doesn’t remember driving the last few miles. Has trouble concentrating. Allows the car to drift outside of its lane.


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email