Falling asleep at the wheel.  It happens more often than you might think.  In fact, studies show nearly a third of drivers have dozed off while at the wheel and among the group 12% said they had an accident because they were too tired while driving.

by Christina Hampton

          According to the United States Department of Transportation, drowsiness or fatigue plays a role in one to ten percent of the 20 million automobile accidents which occur each year in the United States.
          Whether we want to admit it or not, most Americans live a fast-paced lifestyle trying to squeeze 36 hours of living into every 24-hour day. Since many of us refuse to slow down, our bedtime keeps getting pushed back, resulting in inadequate sleep.
         "We at the Pennsylvania Turnpike want travelers to know that sleep deprived drivers or drowsy drivers can kill," said John Hickey, the Turnpike's Research and Programming Manager. "Drowsy drivers are a danger to themselves and to others. Traditionally, we think of drunken drivers as being dangerous, but drowsy drivers can be just as hazardous."
         The only safe driver is an alert driver. Even the safest drivers become confused and use poor judgment when they are sleepy. In order to be a safe driver you must have your eyes open -- and that means staying off the road when you're sleepy.
         A large percentage of Americans go into sleep debt by habitually sleeping only four to five hours a night. "This directly affects reflexes, wakefulness, and judgement," noted Hickey. "When you're driving a car or any vehicle, split second reflexes mean the difference between life and death." The average person needs a good seven to eight hours of sleep a night. If you're not getting it, you're building up a sleep deficit.
         Drivers at risk for a sleep-related accident include those who are sleep deprived; those driving long distances without a break; those driving when they would normally sleep; those taking medication that increases sleepiness or drinking alcohol; those driving alone; business or frequent travelers and those driving on long, rural or boring roads.
         Sleep-related crashes are most common in young people (ages 18 to 25) who stay up too late, sleep too little, and drive at night. Studies suggest that 20% to 30% of those with non- traditional work schedules have had a sleep-related driving mishap within the last year. Truck drivers, who drive at night when the body is sleepiest, are especially susceptible to sleep- related crashes.
         Over 30 million Americans are afflicted with sleep disorders like sleep apnea, narcolepsy and chronic insomnia. All lead to excessive sleepiness. Most people with sleep disorders remain undiagnosed and are at high risk for a sleep-related accident.
         Because safety is the number one priority at the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Turnpike engineers developed an innovative safety feature to help reduce accidents caused by drowsiness. SNAP (Sonic Nap Alert Pattern) is a series of recessed grooves embedded in the shoulder of the roadway which, when driven over, snaps drivers to attention.
         "The Turnpike's SNAP rumble strips have been a great success. Many lives are saved each year on the Turnpike by alerting drivers that they are drowsy or inattentive and drifting off the road," Hickey explained. "However, some drivers think they can use the rumble strips to keep themselves awake and driving. That's a big mistake!"
         Studies conducted at Stanford University's Sleep Research Center confirm that after the first sleep event drivers cannot predict the next time they will drift off the road. There is a significant chance that the second or third time a driver drifts it may be into the median -- or into another vehicle.
         Studies also show that it doesn't take a full night's sleep to restore some attentiveness. A 15 minute nap can sometimes restore enough alertness to safely drive for a while. Eventually though, the sleep deficit must be paid up with a full night's rest.
         Don't risk your life. Be smart and take a short break at one of the Turnpike's 22 service plazas. Pull over to an emergency parking area or picnic area. If need be get off at the nearest Interchange and check into a motel.
         "The Turnpike's Sonic Nap Alert Pattern rumble strips were designed to be a warning to drowsy motorists to take a break," said Turnpike Deputy Executive Director John Durbin. "But if you are seriously sleep deprived, don't try and fool mother nature. Stop and take a rest. We want your to arrive at your destination alive and well."
         So, if you're driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike and you hear that rumbling sound beneath your tires, don't force yourself to keep going. Perhaps you should stop for a good night's sleep, because otherwise you might not get to your destination at all.


 Can't remember the last few miles
 Experience wandering or disconnected
 Have difficulty focusing or keeping
     eyes open
 Have trouble keeping head up
 Drift from the lane
 Yawn repeatedly
 If you are frequently sleepy during
     the day, contact your physician or
     sleep disorder center for diagnosis.


 Drive for long periods at night


 Get a good night's sleep (the average person requires 8
 Plan to drive long trips with a companion. Conversation
 Relieves tiredness and monotony, so share driving.
 Take a break every 2 hours or 100 miles. Get out and do
 some exercise or take a 15-20 minute nap.
 Avoid alcohol and medications that could impair
 Keep the car cool and listen to lively music
 Watch your posture - slouching brings on fatigue

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