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Drowsy Driving

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David Keeling
Copyright 2000, RPK&A, Inc

During my first year of college I was involved in a semi-long-distance relationship. She went to a school in upstate New York, while I attended one in Vermont, so we were separated by about five hours worth of backwater Vermont roads and New York interstate. I had a car and tried to visit her whenever I could, which basically meant one weekend every month or so.

Anyway, I always ended up driving at night; either I left late from my college after class on Friday, or else I ended up leaving her place late in the day on the following Sunday, sometimes both. Most of the time, the drive itself didn’t matter much–I liked driving, the ride featured travel-guide-worthy scenery, and my mixed-tapes helped pass the time.

Then there was what I’d like to call the sketchy bridge incident. The bridge was not sketchy, the incident was. Returning from a fairly typical weekend, I found myself cruising back to my college at illegal but not unreasonable speeds. The day had grown cold and shitty, and I’d cranked the heat up so that I could at least pretend the next three and a half hours of driving wouldn’t be so bad.

Gradually, I noticed that I was paying less attention to just about everything. My car would drift a little to the side, but it would take me a few seconds to shake my head clear of the daze and correct things. My eyelids felt warm and heavy, and I slowly realized that they kept pulling down. It doesn’t take a genius to realize I was on the verge of falling asleep at the wheel, but the funny thing is that the idea that this might be dangerous never registered with me at the time; I thought the feeling would just pass.

At any rate, it took the bridge to snap me out of it. It was one of those long boring interstate type concrete structures, decked out with–thankfully enough–so-called “rumble strips”–those strips on the side of the road that make it sound like your car is possessed when you run over them. When my tires hit the strip, the sound jolted me awake, releasing a nice little surge of adrenalin into my system along the way.

Realizing that I’d almost crashed, I decided that maybe I’d sacrifice what might have been a new land speed record in travel time in favor of getting home alive. So I pulled into the next rest stop and loaded up on coffee and sugar. Happily, the combination woke me up significantly enough that I felt safe driving the rest of the way home.

The scary part about all this is that it’s not an uncommon problem. Drowsy driving crashes happen primarily to people of college age (16-29), and are distressingly common among college-age men. Drivers younger than 30 are four times more likely to have a crash than drivers who are older. Most of the time, drowsy driving crashes occur on major highways, and because of that (and the high speeds typically involved) the chance of death in a drowsy driving accident is particularly high.

Obviously, the best way to avoid a drowsy driving accident is to avoid driving when you’re not rested well enough. It’s also clear, though, that sometimes that’s not a great option for college students. So what can you do if you start feeling sleepy at the wheel? Here are a few suggestions:

Take a nap. That’s right, pull off to a rest stop or other safe space, crack a window, lock the doors, and snooze. Even 15-20 minutes worth of sleep can help significantly. But be careful; more than 20 minutes may make you feel groggy afterward.
Drink coffee. Yes, another instance when the college student’s friend, caffeine, pulls through. Caffeine improves your alertness, so if you’re feeling drowsy, find yourself a latte.
Do whatever else helps you feel awake. Whether that means singing along to your music, putting the seat into an uncomfortable position, or opening a window. Studies have not shown that any of these tactics help significantly, though, so it’s better to rely on actual rest and caffeine.
Don’t drink and drive. Not even a little bit. Even small amounts of alcohol can have huge effects on you if you’re already feeling a little sleepy.
If you do begin to doze off when you’re driving, it’s important that you stop driving as soon as possible. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to get yourself to do that, so one tactic may be to drink something with caffeine before you even hit the road if you’re going to be driving at night. Driving with a friend always helps, too–you can keep each other awake and take turns driving, thereby avoiding a sketchy bridge (or tree, or Lexus) story of your own.

References

Strohl, Kingman P., MD, et al. “Drowsy Driving and Automobile Crashes.” The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (U.S). DOT HS 808 707. April 1998.

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