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Sleepless behind the steering wheel

Drowsy driving is responsible for thousands of car accidents every year. Educate yourself and don’t be part of that statistic.
My story
When I was eighteen, my best friend and I did the obligatory post-high school “car trip across America” thing. It was Thelma and Louise without the cops, without the guns, and without the guys. It was fun, except we didn’t get a lot of sleep. Half the time we were so tired, we drove with the windows down and blowing cold air onto us, the radio blasting, singing along to music at the top of our lungs, drinking colas and popping the occasional No-Doz… all just to keep awake. We were very lucky to have lived through our “we are immortal” phase, especially considering how the trip ended: at a hospital in rural Arizona. 

At about 3am on literally the last leg of our six thousand mile journey (in less than three weeks), our luck ran out. I was deep asleep in the passenger seat, and my friend either saw a deer or, exhausted, thought she did, and swerved. Her tired reflexes not up to par, she lost control and we started to flip. I woke up and watched out the front windshield as we turned, seemingly so slowly, over and over and over. Next thing I knew, I was looking in disbelief at the blood covering my hands while I screamed for her to get out of the car. Fortunately, we were wearing seatbelts so sustained only minor injuries – and nobody else was hurt.

A classic case
My friend and I didn’t know it at the time, but ours were a classic example, and fell right in the middle of the sleep-related accident statistics. Those stats show that an accident caused by sleepy drivers is likely to be serious, occurring in the late night/early morning or in the mid-afternoon when the driver, who is often alone is on a high-speed road (such as a freeway or highway) when her single car leaves the roadway. Most of the time, the driver does not attempt to avoid a crash… probably because she’s not aware until it’s too late. Younger drivers – up to age 29 (especially males) – are most at risk.

Thousands of crashes every year are caused by sleepy drivers, and you’re taking a chance if you’ve been missing sleep. Mothers get behind on rest for many reasons. What’s keeping us up? Everything from the desire to “do it all” to making up family-related absences from work, to the need for “me” time that must come in the early morning or late night. Then there’s the simple fact that children often aren’t terribly sound sleepers and wake us up when they can’t sleep.

Other risk factors include the use of sedating medications (antihistimines, some prescription antidepressants and anxiolytic hypnotics) or alcohol consumption, sleep disorders (sleep apnea, narcolepsy) and also your driving patterns themselves: if you drive a lot or for long stretches of time, night time driving (between 12m and 6am especially) and the midafternoon hours. Researchers say these factors have cumulative effects: in combination, they substantially increase your crash risk… that means if you’re tired already, don’t even have one drink, because it will make you sleepier (even if the effect of the booze has worn off by the time it’s time to go). Ditto for the Sudafed and other like meds.

Take a nap or take a cab
Remember that the problem isn’t just with drivers who fall asleep at the wheel, it’s also the fact that drowsiness can impair your driving in many of the same ways alcohol does: you’ll have a slower reaction time (can’t stop as quickly to avoid a crash – even more of a risk when you’re traveling at high speeds), you don’t pay as much attention to your environment, and the processing of that information takes longer and is less accurate. In a sense, you’re driving blind.

The solution is, in theory, simple: Make sure you get enough sleep and don’t drive when you’re tired. But with all the demands in the life of a mother, it’s not always that easy. It has to be up to you to think twice before you or another drowsy driver slips behind the wheel. Take a nap or take a cab – you are worth it.

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