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SPRINGFIELD — “It’s a killer. It’s that simple. Drowsy driving is as dangerous as driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” Dr. Ronald Gross, chief, Trauma and Emergency Surgery Services, Baystate Medical Center, said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving results in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and more than 100,000 accidents each year. And, as people are driving longer distances to be with family and friends, falling asleep behind the wheel is a cause for alarm and concern.
According to the Foundation’s 2009 Sleep in America poll, about one-third (28 percent) of Americans admitted that they have fallen asleep behind the wheel within the past year, and more than half (54 percent) said they have driven while drowsy.
“Almost everyone at one time or another has experienced some symptoms of drowsy driving. I know that I have,” Gross said.
And, it’s not just restricted to nighttime.
“Drowsy driving can happen anytime of the day depending on your fatigue level,” Gross said.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) offers the following warning signs of drowsy driving:
  • You keep yawning.
  • You are unable to keep your eyes open.
  • You catch yourself “nodding off” and have trouble keeping your head up.
  • You can’t remember driving the last few miles.
  • You end up too close to cars in front of you.
  • You miss road signs or drive past your turn.
  • You drift into the other lane of traffic.
  • You drive on the “rumble strip” or on the shoulder of the road.
“Many people don’t realize just how tired they are sometimes before getting into the driver’s seat. It is easy to become lulled into a comfort zone and fall asleep behind the wheel, especially on longer drives when there tends to be less stimulation,” Gross said.
Gross, who over his long career as a trauma surgeon has seen the devastating results of drowsy driving in the emergency departments where he has treated patients.
Among those most at risk for drowsy driving include bus, truck, and other commercial drivers; people taking medications; as well as shift workers and persons with more than one job or irregular work hours. The risk is also especially high for teenagers who only get about seven hours of sleep each night, well short of the AASM recommended 9.2 hours.
So, what to do?
“If you find yourself falling asleep on the road, don’t try to continue, pull over onto the side of the highway and put your emergency flashers on. Once you feel sufficiently revived for the moment, drive to the next exit and find a place to take a nap,” Gross said.
The Baystate Medical Center trauma surgeon also recommended taking a break every two hours during a long drive.
“Even a short 15 to 20 minute nap at a rest stop can refresh you,” Gross said.
According to the AASM, rolling down the car windows or tuning up the volume on the radio will do little to increase your alertness while driving. They suggest the following better ways to avoid drowsy driving.
  • Get a full night of seven to eight hours of sleep before driving.
    • Avoid drinking late at night.
    • Avoid driving alone.
    • On a long trip, share the driving with another passenger.
    • Pull over at a rest stop and take a nap.
    • Use caffeine for a short-term boost.
    • Take a short nap after consuming caffeine to maximize the effect.
    • Arrange for someone to give you a ride home after working a late shift.
    Also, many people with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy are at a greater risk for drowsy driving, Dr. Karin Johnson, sleep specialist in the Division of Neurology at Baystate Medical Center, noted.
    “If a patient has narcolepsy, they are more likely to fall asleep suddenly, and extreme daytime sleepiness is a common side effect of sleep apnea,” Johnson said.
    The changing light of fall can also play a major role in sleep patterns.
    “For people who are very sensitive to light, the decrease in evening light may make them feel more tired. And, as the days get shorter and shorter, people tend to be more tired,” Johnson said.
    More than half of all Americans suffer from some form of sleep disorder. For most adults, seven-to-eight hours a night is recommended to achieve good health and optimum performance. It is recommended that children in pre-school sleep between 11 and 13 hours a night, and school-aged children between 10 and 11 hours of sleep a night. Teenagers, on average, require about nine or more hours of sleep each night.
    “If you often have difficulty sleeping or you fall asleep during the day, talk to your physician about being evaluated for a possible sleep disorder,” Johnson said.
    For more information, and to learn about sleep studies offered at Baystate Health’s three hospitals — Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, and Baystate Mary Lane Hospital in Ware — call the Baystate Neurodiagnostics and Sleep Center at 794-5600, or visit baystatehealth.org/sleep.
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