What is Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy Driving is characterized by the following:

  • Driving with less than 6-7 hrs of sleep.
  • Driving if you have been awake for more than 12 hours.
  • Yawning frequently.
  • Trouble keeping your head up.
  • Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking and heavy eyelids.
  • Unable to remember the last few miles you've driven.
  • Missing exits or traffic signs.
  • Drifting from your lane, swerving or tailgating.

How Big is the Drowsy Driving Problem?

While distracted driving has been getting a lot of attention lately, drowsy driving remains a MAJOR RISK for motor vehicle crashes.

Did you know...

  • Two out of every five drivers (41%) admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel at some point. One in ten said they have done so in the past year according to a new AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety Study.
  • One in six (16.5%) of deadly crashes, one in eight of crashes resulting in a hospitalization, and one in eight out of fourteen crashes in which a vehicle had to be towed involved a drowsy driver.
  • The National Highway Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving results in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and more than 100,000 accidents PER YEAR.
  • More than half (55%) of drivers who reported falling asleep while driving in the past year said they had been driving for less than one hour before falling asleep.
  • Many traffic researchers believe drowsy driving has been under-reported and underestimated.

What Are the Effects of Lack of Sufficient Sleep?

When individuals do not get a sufficient amount of sleep, the following side effects can result:

  • Decreased awareness
  • Slow reaction time
  • Impaired judgment
  • Delays in processing information
  • Vision impairment
  • Episodes of Microsleep increase (microsleep is characterized by falling asleep for a brief period of 4-6 seconds which often occurs without conscious awareness of this happening. In just four seconds, a car going 55 mph can travel over 100 yards -- the length of a football field.

Studies have shown that being awake for more than 20 hours can result in impairment equal to a blood alcohol level of 0.08%.

Who Is At Risk of Drowsy Driving?

Individuals at an increased risk of drowsy driving include those who...

  • Have had less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep.
  • Drive after being awake for more than 12 hours.
  • Take medication that causes drowsiness.
  • Drive at night or the early afternoon.
  • Consistently have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep at night.
  • Have untreated organic sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy or periodic limb movement disorder.
  • Drive frequently for long periods on monotonous highways or rural roads.
  • Work the night shift, especially when driving HOME after the shift.
  • Driving alone

In addition, younger drivers age 16-24 are nearly twice as likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash than drivers age 40-59. Men (52%) are also more likely than women (30%) to report having ever fallen asleep while driving.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Drowsy Driving?

To prevent drowsy driving, individuals should...

  • Get plenty of sleep (at least 7 hours) the night before a long drive.
  • Schedule a break every two hours or every 100 miles. During the break, lay your head back and snooze for 10-15 minutes. A brief nap is often refreshing.
  • Travel at times when you are normally awake, and consider staying overnight rather than driving straight through.
  • Drink a caffeinated beverage, but because it takes approximately 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream, find a safe place to take a 30-minute nap while waiting for the caffeine to take effect. Remember, caffeine cannot substitute for sleep.
  • STOP DRIVING if you become sleepy. Opening the windows, turning off the heat, playing the radio, singing or calling a friend to keep you awake DO NOT WORK and may be risking your safety and the safety of others. If you need sleep, pull over and take a short nap as indicated above.

If you notice you have consistent problems getting to sleep or staying asleep, seek consultation at a Sleep Center.

The Law and Sleep Problems

The Medical Advisory Board (MAB) to the Motor Vehicle Authority (MVA) is comprised of physicians specializing in various areas of medicine. They work closely with the MVA to ensure that a driver is capable of safely operating a motor vehicle. Approval by the Driver Wellness & Safety and/or the Medical Advisory Board is required if you have any of a number of conditions considered potentially to render a driver incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle. If you have one of the listed conditions and are applying for a learner's permit, you must have approval prior to the issue of the permit. Similarly, if your driver's license has been revoked and you have asked to have it reinstated, you may be referred by the MVA for review by the Driver Wellness and Safety and/or Medical Advisory Board.

Sleep disorders, including narcolepsy or sleep apnea are among the conditions listed to which the above may apply. The MAB does not perform medical examinations. They depend on reports from your physicians.

Who Might Be Evaluated in the Sleep Disorders Center for Excessive Sleepiness That Can Affect the Ability to Drive?

There is no legal requirement for health care providers in the state of Maryland to report patients with sleepiness due to sleep disorders to state authorities. However, there is a legal requirement for drivers to be truthful when filling out health questionnaires for the state.

The rules for commercial drivers are more strict, and many transportation companies, like trucking and bus companies, are sensitive to the dangers of the sleepy driver and have their own rules for medical reporting of sleepiness, and establishing fitness to drive.

What Happens If A Patient Is Referred to the University of Maryland Sleep Disorders Center for Evaluation of Excessive Sleepiness?

The Sleep Disorders Center is very sensitive to the problem of the sleepy driver and tries to perform our evaluations as rapidly as possible. For obvious reasons, our practitioners will NOT certify a driver as fit to drive UNLESS we have clear objective evidence that this is the case. If a driver has a known medical condition, like sleep apnea, this means that he or she is using their treatment and ON TREATMENT there is no objective evidence of excessive sleepiness.

On referral to the University of Maryland Sleep Disorders Center, the driver undergoes a complete medical history, including history of sleep symptoms and sleep disorders, medications, and anything else that could affect the ability to remain alert and vigilant. A complete physical examination is done. If there is a need based on the medical evaluation for diagnostic sleep studies, this will be ordered, and any necessary treatment will be recommended.

If a sleep disorder is found, appropriate treatment will be recommended. After treatment is begun, additional sleep testing to determine that treatment is effective, and that excessive sleepiness is gone may be ordered.

Once it is clear that there is no longer excessive sleepiness, a letter to the driver's employer, appropriate state agency or the driver him or herself will be generated documenting the sleep disorder, the treatment and that treatment has proven effective.

Some companies have policies requiring annual recertification of fitness to drive. The University of Maryland Sleep Disorders Center endeavors to accomplish this is a timely manner as well.

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