The drowsy driver dilemma

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When you are behind the wheel of a car, being sleepy is very dangerous. Sleepiness decreases awareness, slows reaction time, and impairs judgment, just like drugs or alcohol, contributing to the possibility of a crash.” –Peter Kissinger, president and CEO, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

A lot drivers out there admit to nodding off at the wheel – despite most of them believing that “diving while driving” is totally unacceptable behavior.

According to a new survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, two out of every five drivers (41%) admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel at some point, with one in ten saying they've done so in the past year. More than a quarter of those surveyed (some 2,000 U.S. residents ages 16 and older contacted by telephone between May 11 and June 7 this year) also admitted they drove despite being so tired that they had difficulty keeping their eyes open in the previous month.

Yet the AAA Foundation also found 85% of those drivers surveyed felt it was "completely unacceptable" for someone to drive if they are so tired they are having trouble keeping their eyes open. Question is, however, can drivers – whether piloting cars or big rigs – accurately recognize the signs of fatigue and then be in a position to do something about it?

[Here are some of the “warning signs” of drowsy driving, provided by a group named “Sound Sleep Health.” Warning: the almost near-monotone of the good doctor’s voice in this clip can induce drowsiness!]

“Drowsy driving” is a big deal, though. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) crash data estimates that about one in six (16.5%) deadly crashes, one in eight crashes resulting in occupant hospitalization and one in fourteen crashes in which a vehicle was towed involve a driver who is drowsy.

These percentages are substantially higher than most previous estimates, suggesting that the contribution of drowsy driving to motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and deaths has not been fully appreciated, stressed Kathleen Marvaso, vp of AAA Public Affairs.

"Many of us tend to underestimate the negative effects associated with fatigue and sleep deprivation and, conversely, overestimate our abilities to overcome them while driving," she said. "This data underscores the importance of educating drivers on the simple, yet effective steps they can take to prevent a possible tragedy. Unfortunately, too many drivers have adopted the 'I'm tired, but I can make it' mentality, often to their own peril or to the peril of others."

To remain alert and avoid drowsiness, AAA offers the following suggestions, based on several lines of research:

• Getting plenty of sleep (at least six hours) the night before a long trip;

• Scheduling a break every two hours or every 100 miles;

• Traveling at times when you are normally awake, and staying overnight rather than driving straight through;

• Stop driving if you become sleepy; someone who is tired could fall asleep at any time.

For truckers, though, following such advice is often times impossible. They are expected to push on through to deliver freight on time and intact – and we all know how bitterly everyday Joe’s and Jane’s complain when they don’t get their goods on time, don’t we? “Who cares about you being tired, Mr. Trucker; I’m paying you to get my stuff to me at this location at this particular time.”

Yet the risks associated with drowsy driving are much higher for truckers since their vehicles are that much heavier and larger than anything else on the road. And as we all know, truck drivers put in long hours behind the wheel, often in nighttime hours when the risks of getting “drowsy” behind the wheel significantly increase.

Some fleets are using technology to help combat “drowsy driving.” Take a look below at what Chris Sutherland, CEO of Sutherland Transport down under in Australia is trying out to alert his drivers – and management as well – to potential “drowsy driving” situations.

The technology Sutherland Transport uses aims to detect the more obvious symptoms of sleepiness, which include but are not limited to:

• Having trouble keeping your eyes open and focused;

• The inability to keep your head up;

• Daydreaming or having wandering, disconnected thoughts;

• Drifting from your lane, or off the road, or tailgating.

Of course, many truck drivers with long years spent on the road may bristle at the thought of using yet another “technological wonder” to monitor their behavior behind the wheel. That’s why I find Jeff Carr’s experience with Sutherland’s “drowsiness detection” technology so interesting.

A 25-year veteran of Australia’s trucking industry, Carr feels such technology can only help a driver – especially if a fleet uses such systems to then get a driver safely off the road so they can rest.

In the end, though, despite all the doo-dads we humans might design to combat this issue, “drowsy driving” won’t go away unless we change our attitudes about it, noted AAA Foundation president and CEO Peter Kissinger.

“We need to change the culture so that not only will drivers recognize the dangers of driving while drowsy but will stop doing it,” he explained.

That, however, is far easier said than done.

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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