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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


When drowsy, don’t drive

Drowsy drivers are not good drivers.  Drowsiness holds its own when compared to drunkenness, inattention and distraction as a cause of traffic accidents.  Statistically, drowsy drivers are responsible for as much death, injury and property loss as drunk drivers.

I mention this now because right after the switch to daylight savings time, people’s sleep patterns are interrupted.  Many drivers are officially sleep deprived (having less than 7 hours of sleep) year around, but drivers are especially susceptible right after having set their clocks ahead.  The Monday after this sleep “loss” sets off a week of sleep-adjustment for many of us.

Even without the common result of drowsiness — falling asleep — drowsiness is plenty dangerous when it occurs during driving.  According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleepiness slows reaction time, decreases awareness, impairs judgment and increases your risk of crashing — the same shortcomings of arising from driving distracted or drunk.

A public survey revealed that 55 percent of drivers questioned had driven while drowsy in the past year.  Over a lifetime, 23 percent said they had fallen asleep driving but had not crashed, 3 percent had fallen asleep and crashed and 2 percent said they had crashed when driving while drowsy.  Sadly, many drowsy drivers likely crashed before taking the survey.

Over the years, I’ve tried popular “tricks” when challenged to stay awake at the wheel:  opening the windows, slapping my face, singing, et cetera.  But they are not effective safety measures.  Now, I prefer the method that works best:  pulling over for a short nap.  15-20 minutes of closed eyes generally curtails the cobwebs.

As a driving danger, the problem may be worse than evident.  It’s nearly impossible to determine with certainty the cause of a fatal crash where drowsy driving is suspected.  However, there are a number of clues at a crash scene that tell investigators the person may have fallen asleep at the wheel.  For example, drowsy driving accidents usually involve only one vehicle, where the driver is alone and the injuries tend to be serious or fatal.  Also, evidence of evasive maneuvers are usually absent from the drowsy driving crash scene.

Although he or she may avoid falling asleep, as I’ve pointed out, there’s adequate danger for that drowsy driver.  Besides impaired reaction time, vision, and attentiveness, increased moodiness and aggressive behavior are results of sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation is the most common cause of drowsiness.  And that does not necessarily mean just one night short of sleep; it can be a cumulative effect of partial sleep deprivation.  Striving for 8 hours of sleep each night is the ideal pattern.

Sleep disorders and the drowsiness they cause may have many roots. For example medications, and alcohol even in small amounts, have sleep-inducing side-effects.

Pull over for some coffee or a nap if you experience any of these signs of drowsiness:  can’t remember the last few miles of driving; drift from your lane or hit the rumble strips; excessive yawing; can’t focus vision or keep eyes open; miss traffic signs;  or catch yourself “nodding off” with trouble keeping your head up.

The problem is real — that’s why we have shoulder rumble strips — and they work pretty well.  Auto manufacturers are also developing alert systems for sleepy drivers.  Nevertheless, the best defense against the ills of drowsy driving is to take a proper rest before taking the wheel.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at