NYACK, N.Y. -- While drunk or distracted driving have taken center stage in America's driving conversation, another equally dangerous action occurs with alarming frequency. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60 percent of Americans have driven while feeling sleepy and 37 percent admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates at least 100,000 police- reported crashes are the direct result of drowsy driving annually, causing an estimated 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries. Before getting behind the wheel, it's important to make sure drivers are attentive and up to the task.
"If you feel yourself nodding off while driving, it’s not enough to roll down your window, turn on the radio, chew gum or pinch yourself," said Nyack Hospital sleep medicine specialist, Dr. Anita Bhola. “Pull over, find a rest area and take a brief nap for 20 minutes or so. If you are driving with someone, change drivers.”
According to Dr. Bhola, teens are by far the most likely to drive while tired. “Fifty-five percent of all drowsy driving-related crashes are seen in those less than 25 years of age,” she noted. “Teens have terrible sleep hygiene—they stay up late, they have to get up early for school and experience phase delay in their internal clock. They should be getting eight and a half to nine and a half hours of sleep, but they often don’t get anywhere near that and are among the most sleep-deprived Americans. Additionally, they are inexperienced drivers.”
The best way to prevent drowsy driving is simply to get enough sleep. Studies recommend seven to nine hours for adults, and from eight and a half to nine and half hours for teens.
Some patients may exhibit signs of a larger sleep disorder, such as snoring or feeling sleepy during the day, and should speak to a doctor about treatment options. It's also important to check medication labels to see if it might be making you sleepy as well as avoiding alcohol before getting behind the wheel. Sometimes, it's just too much effort to drive home. In those cases, always get a ride home, take a taxi or use public transportation.
“Most people underestimate how drowsy they are, or focus on the need to get somewhere,” Dr. Bhola said. “But it only takes 4 seconds of lapse in attention to cause an accident.”