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Drowsy driving confirmed as major contributor in annual accident rates

Sun Advocate reporter

Drowsy driving leads to thousands of automobile crashes each year.

And with the summer vacation season winding down, Carbon County law enforcement officials would like to remind motorists to take all necessary safety precautions when traveling, especially when traveling long distances.

The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration recently released data, compiled via an expert panel, about the specific dangers associated with drowsy driving.

The panel's findings explain that sleep is a microbiological need with predictable patterns of sleepiness and wakefulness.

Sleepiness results from the sleep component of the circadian cycle of sleep and wakefulness, restriction of sleep and/or interruption of sleep.

According to the panel a typical crash related to sleepiness has the following characteristics:

•The problem occurs during late night, early morning or mid-afternoon.

•The crash is likely to be serious.

•A single vehicle leaves the roadway.

•The driver does not attempt to avoid a crash.

•The driver is alone in the vehicle.

Although no motorist is immune to falling asleep at the wheel, the panel's findings suggest that three populations are more prone to drowsy driving.

The populations are young people between the age of 16 and 29, especially males; shift employees whose sleep is disrupted by working at night or long or irregular hours; and people with untreated sleep apnea symptoms and narcolepsy.

According to the safety administration, to prevent drowsy driving and its consequences, Americans need information on approaches that may reduce their risks.

"The public needs to be informed of benefits of specific behaviors that help avoid becoming drowsy while driving," commented Dr. Kingman P. Strohl, a member of the panel.

The panel reports that helpful behaviors include:

•Planning to get sufficient sleep.

•Not drinking even small amounts of alcohol when sleepy.

•Limiting driving between midnight and 6 a.m.

•As soon as a driver becomes sleepy, the key behavioral step is to stop driving. For example let a passenger drive or stop to sleep before continuing a trip.

•Two remedial actions can make a short-term difference in driving alertness are, taking a short nap or consuming caffeine equivalent to two cups of coffee.

The panel warns that the effectiveness of any other steps to improve alertness when sleepy, such as opening a window or listening to the radio have not been demonstrated.

With many Carbon County residents working shift work at local mines or other facilities, drowsy driving can be a big problem.

Shift work employees need to be informed about effective measures that can be used to reduce sleepiness. Countermeasures include strategies for scheduling shift changes and when shift work precludes normal nighttime sleep, planning a time and an environment to obtain sufficient restorative sleep.

According to the panel, sleepiness leads to crashes because it impairs elements of human performance that are critical to safe driving such as:

•Slower reaction time. Sleepiness reduces optimum reaction times and moderately sleepy people can have a performance impairing increase in reaction time that will hinder stopping in time to avoid a collision. Even small decrements in reaction time can have a profound effect on crash risks, particularly at high speeds.

•Reduced vigilance. Performance on attention based tasks declines with sleepiness, including increased periods of non-responding behavior.

•Deficits in information processing. Processing and integrating information takes longer, the accuracy of short-term memory decreases and performance declines when sleepy.

As a warning for abusing sleep loss countermeasures the panel reports that, "often people use physical activity and dietary stimulants to cope with sleep loss, masking their level of sleepiness. However, when they sit still, perform repetitive tasks (such as driving long distances), get bored or let down their coping defenses, sleep comes more quickly. This can lead to falling asleep quickly at the wheel."

The safety administration itself has taken large steps in the last decade to aid passengers, such as installing rumble strips along the edge of new roads. But the administration and panel have concluded that there is no substitute for obtaining an adequate amount of sleep before getting behind the wheel.

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