No one is immune. Falling asleep at the wheel killed Herb Brooks, who coached the1980 U.S. Olympic gold medal ice hockey team. Earlier this year, Jeopardy ! host Alex Trebek fell asleep and ran off the road in California, escaping with minor injuries. Surveys by the National Sleep Foundation show that nearly 100 million drivers say they have driven while drowsy in just the last year alone; 32 million drivers admit to falling asleep behind the wheel.
What makes drowsy driving so deadly is that people are poor judges of how impaired they are by exhaustion. "Our brain is designed to be awake for about 16 hours maximum," explains sleep expert Dinges. Once sleep periods drop below seven hours, most of us become impaired - often as impaired as someone who is drunk. " The biological drive to sleep is so powerful that the brain will literally shut down the body in a 'sleep attack' , even if you are driving in a big city," he adds. Cumulative sleep loss - routinely sleeping fewer than six hours a night or having interrupted sleep - can have equally deadly consequences. Even simple tasks are made much more difficult by exhaustion. An alert person can respond to a visual cue, such as a light turning on, in about a quarter of a second. But it takes anywhere from two to 120 times longer for a tired person. Consider this: At 60 mph, drifting just 4 degrees in your lane can cause a crash in 2 seconds. " Many of these crashes are catastrophic," says Dinges, " because a driver who falls asleep even for a few seconds doesn't swerve or hit the brakes. "
Preventing drowsy driving is a challenge. Educating drivers, especially younger ones, is tough. Technology may offer some promise in a system that can monitor erratic driving and warn drivers before crashes. A third avenue is the legal system - by making fatigued driving a criminal offence.
New Jersey is the only state with such a law. The crusade was led by Carole McDonnell, whose daughter Maggie, 20, was killed in 1997 by a man who fell asleep at the wheel, crossed three lanes and hit her head-on. He was cited for reckless driving and fined $200. Today, being awake for more than 24 hours and causing a fatal crash in New Jersey can result in up to 10 years jail and a $100,000 fine under "Maggie's Law." "People don't have a good fix on the need for sleep, " says Richard Gelula, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation. " I would rather see you late than dead "
" I Did This To Myself "
In 1990, Rusty Burris, then 18, fell asleep at the wheel just 90 seconds from home. He'd been awake for more than 36 hours. The crash left him paralyzed. Today Rusty works in the Surgical , Burn and Trauma Unit of the University Hospital in Columbia, Mo., where he sees many drowsy driving accident victims. " You can become intoxicated with fatigue, like you can with alcholol," Burris says. Then he adds, "I did this to myself. If I did this to someone else, I don't know how I could make it."
What You Can Do When Your'e Tired:
Don't just roll down the window and turn up the radio. These "fixes" work only for seconds or minutes.
Use caffeine wisely. Two cups of coffee may increase alertness for two to three hours. For a long trip, skip coffee or soda for most of the day before. Your brain will get more of a boost from the caffeine.
Nap. If you can't keep your eyes open, find a safe area to nap. A 20-minute nap can refresh you for one to three hours. Allow time to recover from grogginess.
Share the driving. Always make sure someone else in the car is awake to keep the driver engaged.
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