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Harvard Forum Highlights Dangers of Drowsy Driving

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drowsy driving

It may seem counter-intuitive, but most accidents cause by drowsy drivers occur during the mid-afternoon.

Drowsy driving is a serious problem that takes the lives of 6,400 people and injures 50,000 every year in the United States, according to an article by Steve Mirsky for Scientific American. The magazine published a transcript of a podcast in which Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, spoke about the dangers of drowsy driving.

At a recent forum at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Heath, “Asleep at the Wheel,” Czeisler said a consensus panel of experts has agreed that if a person has had less than two hours of sleep in a 24 hour period, that person drives just like someone who is drunk, and that statutes should be adjusted to reflect this.

Who Is Driving While Drowsy?

Three groups of people are especially vulnerable to drowsy driving, include young people, night shift workers, and people with sleep disorders, especially sleep apnea, which more than doubles the risk of crashes. One of every three men, and one of every six women have sleep apnea, but the vast majority — 85% — have not been diagnosed.

Czeisler said that every month, 56 million Americans admit to driving when they have not gotten enough sleep and are feeling exhausted. A sleep deficient driver might be running on adrenaline and not even know that he or she is not in shape to drive.

Young People Vulnerable

Young people are prone to drowsy driving because they believe they can do anything. However, they are the most vulnerable of the three groups, for a biological reason.

As Czeisler explains:

[…] As we get older we lose cells in the sleep switch in the brain, in the hypothalamus, that help us make the transition from wakefulness to sleep […] when we keep an 18-year-old awake all night and compare that to keeping a 70-year-old awake all night, the 18-year-old will have 10 times as many involuntary lapses of attention than the older person.

 A recent study found that truck drivers who have sleep apnea and who are not compliant with treatment have a 400% greater risk of “serious preventable” truck crashes.

Mid-afternoon is when a person is most vulnerable to drowsy driving. This is when some cultures give people time for a nap (siesta), and when ours has a coffee break and the British have a tea break. Most sleep-deficient driving accidents occur during the day.

Four D’s of Driving Impairment

Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Administration, said at the forum that drowsy driving is the fourth “D” word describing impaired driving, along with drunk, drugged, and distracted. And although not all drivers have had a drink, or taken drugs, or are using a cellphone while driving, “absolutely everybody” needs enough sleep so that they are wide awake and alert every time they drive.

Rosekind said drowsy driving is a critical public health issue that affects everyone. Because even if you’re well rested, others on the road might not be. He said a test for drowsy driving, one that would find biomarkers, is at least several years away.

Safe Driving Incentives

At the Harvard forum, Ariana Huffington, author of The Sleep Revolution, Transforming Your Life One Night at a Time, said incentives are one way to make sure people are getting enough sleep to drive safely. For example, the insurance company Aetna has given all of its employees Fitbits to monitor their sleep. The company gives $25 a night to every employee who Fitbit shows has gotten at least seven hours of sleep.

Huffington asks drivers to take a pledge to not drive drowsy.

Image by Lorenzo Cavoretto/123RF.


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