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Driving While Asleep

January 23, 2013

Safe Driving?

Recently Toyota unveiled a new self-driving Lexus – joining a very long list of manufacturers working on self-directed transport.

We may need self driving cars soon. People are falling asleep at the wheel – all the time.

The CDC and You

Recently the Centers for Disease Control conducted a large telephone survey.  Nearly 150,000 people were asked if they fell asleep at the wheel.

Four percent said they did so. That is – at least once a month.

That’s twelve times a year when they have a chance to kill themselves – or you.

And based on other studies, that’s a gross underestimate of how many sleeping people are driving.

Am I Awake?

People have a rather poor sense of when they’re awake or asleep.

I’m not just referring to watching television or listening to political speeches.   People fall asleep all the time.

These “micro-sleeps” may last only two to three seconds.  At seventy miles an hour that’s two to three football fields before you notice where you are.

Which can be too late.

A well known study done in Detroit looked at stage 1 sleep.

In stage 1 your EEG patterns show marked brain slowing.  You’re unaware of surroundings.  You’re unconscious.

People were left in stage 1 sleep for a full 10 minutes.  Then they were asked what happened.

Fully 50% said they had been awake the whole time.  Some thought they remained awake even following watching  videotapes of themselves asleep.

Microsleeps are very  common.  Some estimates are 30-40% of people have them during the day.

Including while driving.

What Factors Produce Microsleeps?

The CDC study was self-report only.  It found young men, and people sleeping six hours a night or less, as those who fell asleep most often.

However, much of the adult population sometimes sleeps less than six hours.  Teenagers do it all the time.

And lots of them are driving.

Then there is the issue of how people drive.  It’s one thing to have microsleeps.    It’s another to have microsleeps combined with distracted driving.

About half young people admit to texting while they drive.  Many, perhaps the majority, are also sleep deprived.

So with people falling asleep, texting, reading newspapers, doing their hair, and eating as they rule the road, how is it we don’t have more accidents?

Because people also like to stay alive.

Awake and Alive

Some years ago I attended a  conference on transport workers and sleep at the Association of Professional Sleep Societies.  There European data, mostly French, showed truck drivers falling asleep at the wheel as perhaps causing 3% or less of truckers’ total accident rate.

What was keeping them more awake and aware than ordinary drivers?

Professionalism, the researchers announced.  Falling asleep meant accidents, loss of income, potential loss of job – and loss of life.

These professional drivers were very good at figuring out when they were too drowsy to drive – which was their job.

Most people can learn to stay awake while driving.  So here are a few tips:

1. If you have a sleep disorder – whether it’s sleep apnea or insomnia – pay special attention to driving.  Make certain you feel sharp and physically sure before you start.  This is  particularly true of people on sedating medications.

Have a map in your head of where you want to go and how you’ll get there.  In your mind see the destination.  Recall the landmarks you will use before you drive – unless you must depend on maps or GPS systems.

2. Walk or do other physical activities just before driving.  Humans tend to perform well when physical is followed by mental activity.   Mental fatigue can be decreased by physical effort – the opposite of what most of us do when we “veg out” after a hard day at work or school.

3. Enjoy coffee or tea before getting on the road – even in very small amounts.  After about noon these drugs can interfere with nighttime sleep – but small doses can be helpful.

4. When in doubt, buy 200 mg caffeine pills and keep them in a small ziplock bag inside your purse or wallet.  Biting down with your teeth to take in a smidgen of caffeine can keep you awake in sleepy times – or when coffee shops are not available.

5. If you do feel sleepy when driving, get off the road and take a nap.  Even ten minutes can revive you materially – then walk for a while before driving again.

6. Look around for sources of light.  Sunlight is particularly alerting.  Lights at night can help keep you awake – if you look for them systematically.

7. Don’t drink before driving.  Please don’t use cellphones while driving– which increase accident rates by about 4 fold – or treat the car as anything but a powerful vehicle.

8. Work on improving your driving skills while on the road.  Attempt to stay as close to the middle of the lane as possible.  Watch other drivers and try to predict who will change lanes, slow down, shift speeds suddenly- and see if you can increase your accuracy.  Also see if you can keep your speed to an exact set limit for at least a minute.

There are many ways to stay alert.  But one of the most important is to recognize that you may fall asleep and not know it.

That basic warning should help you do what’s necessary to stay awake and alive.
Rest, sleep, Sarasota Sleep Doctor, well-being, regeneration,healthy without health insurance, longevity, body clocks, insomnia, sleep disorders, the rest doctor, matthew edlund, the power of rest, the body clock, psychology today, huffington post, redbook, longboat key news

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