It’s midafternoon and I’m fighting to keep my eyes open. It’s a matter of life and death. That’s because I’m northbound on I-93, going 65 miles an hour — with many cars passing me.
Once or twice on the monotonous two-hour drive, a jolt of adrenaline surges through my bloodstream as I suddenly realize I’ve actually drifted off for a micromoment. Thankfully I get home without killing myself or anybody else.
If you say you haven’t had the same experience behind the wheel, I don’t believe you.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) says there were more than 72,000 documented accidents involving drowsy drivers between 2009 and 2013. But that’s just from official police reports, so experts say it’s a gross under-estimate.
After all, there’s no sleep-a-lyzer test for drowsiness like the blood alcohol-level test for drunk drivers. And it’s harder for a cop to spot a drowsy driver than one distracted by a smart phone.
“Twenty to twenty-five percent of all crashes could be fatigue-related — drowsy drivers,” says Dr. Mark Rosekind, the NHTSA administrator. “We could be looking at over a million crashes and potentially up to 8,000 lives lost.”
Rosekind made those remarks during a webcast this week sponsored by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and The Huffington Post. The discussion included HuffPost editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington, Harvard sleep expert Charles Czeisler, and Jay Winsten, associate dean for health communication at the Harvard Chan School.
The forum is part of a national campaign against drowsy driving that’s just getting underway.
The idea is to treat drowsy driving as the public health issue that many believe it is and to bring to the campaign the same strategies that stigmatized drunk driving. Winsten master-minded that effort 28 years ago when he coined the term “designated driver” and nagged movie and TV producers to insinuate it into their scripts.
I moderated the online discussion. Here are some highlights:
The Brain Split
Czeisler, who’s the head of the division of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says the sleep-deprived brain can split itself in two. One part goes through the motions of a “highly over-learned task” such as driving. Meanwhile, cognitive centers involuntarily transition from wakefulness to sleep.
“So it’s particularly concerning that 56 million Americans a month admit that they drive when they haven’t gotten enough sleep and they’re exhausted,” Czeisler says. “Eight million of them lose the struggle to stay awake and actually admit to falling asleep at the wheel every month.”
My powerful mid-afternoon drowsiness was typical. “It used to be thought that [drowsiness-related crashes] only happened at night, but that’s because people weren’t looking,” Czeisler says. “Most sleep-deficient driving incidents happen during the daytime because there are so many more drivers on the road.”
And there’s a physiological factor. Mid-afternoon is before the brain’s internal clock “has given us a second wind to help us stay awake in the evening,” he says.
Who Falls Asleep Most?
Three groups are particularly vulnerable to falling asleep at the wheel, Czeisler says: young people, night-shift workers, and the millions of people who suffer from sleep apnea.
“Young people think that because they’re young, they’re fit, they can do anything,” the Harvard sleep researcher says. “But actually, young people are the most vulnerable. More than half of fatigue-related accidents are in people under 25 years of age.” Continue reading