Falling asleep while driving.

A NHTSA poster explaining drowsy driving.

Drowsy driving is a serious public health concern and there is a need for more preventive education on the matter, says the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) in a new position statement. The statement, appearing in the November 15 issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, urges policymakers and institutions to take action to increase public awareness and education on the.

Drowsy driving can be as dangerous as driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. AASM’s president, Dr. Nathaniel Watson, said:

Every year thousands of people die in preventable motor vehicle accidents caused by drowsy driving.

Reduced Alertness

In the policy statement, AASM writes that drowsiness is similar to alcohol in how it compromises driving ability: Alertness and attentiveness are reduced, reaction times are delayed, and decision-making skills are hindered. Drivers don’t always realize they’re drowsy:

Unfortunately, drowsy driving can be difficult for individual drivers to identify; some drivers aren’t aware that they have fallen asleep at the wheel even after being asleep for a few minutes. Drowsiness can impair the ability to drive safely, even if the driver does not fall asleep. Drowsy driving usually occurs at high speeds and the driver is often unable to avoid a crash, resulting in a serious accident.

Widespread Problem

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety writes that drowsy driving causes about 328,000 vehicle accidents annually, of which 6,400 are fatal, and 109,000 cause injuries. Drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 are at the highest risk of having an accident while drowsy, with males having a higher risk than females, according to AAA. More than one third of drivers say they have fallen asleep while driving, and more than one in 10 has had that happen within the past year. One in five fatal crashes involves drowsy driving.

If you feel drowsy even though you’ve gotten enough sleep, the AASM encourages you to get help from a board-certified sleep medicine physician at one of the more than 2,500 AASM-accredited sleep centers throughout the United States.

The Academy and the National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project encourage drivers to take responsibility for staying awake while driving “by making it a daily priority to get sufficient sleep, refusing to drive when sleep-deprived, recognizing the signs of drowsiness, and pulling off the road to a safe location when sleepy.”

Temporary Fixes

Drinking caffeinated beverages can temporarily restore a drowsy driver’s alertness, but these are not a substitute for adequate sleep. And doing things like turning up the radio, opening the window, or turning up the air conditioner are not effective. The Academy exhorts people to get plenty of sleep before driving long distances:

If you are planning a long trip and know that you might be tired, use a designated driver or alternate drivers, rather than risk driving while drowsy.

For more information, see www.projecthealthysleep.org.

The Academy is a professional society whose members include 10,000 accredited sleep centers and individual members: physicians, scientists, and other health-care professionals. The AASM said that via its Sleep and Transportation Safety Task Force, it has created “model drowsy driving language” that states can include in driver’s manuals, educational materials, and licensing exams. The AASM also encourages the car insurance industry to provide discounts for drivers who take drowsy driving educational courses.

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