Wake-up call: Drowsy drivers are serious threat - USA TODAY
By Larry Copeland

Lionel Edwards used to nod off while driving. For years, he'd get behind the wheel and after five to 10 minutes find himself dozing.

"I was so exhausted because I wasn't getting the proper sleep," he says. "It was really, really bad, especially at night."

Two years ago, Edwards, 39, was driving to his Pottstown, Pa., home after working a night shift. He fell asleep, waking to the frantic honking of a woman whose car he was forcing off the road. "She was already on the shoulder," Edwards says, adding that he pulled over just in time for the woman to avoid crashing into a ditch. "I told my wife, and she was really upset. She said I had to (get help)."

Drowsy driving is one of the most vexing problems involving traffic safety. It is a factor in more than 100,000 crashes, resulting in 1,550 deaths and 40,000 injuries annually, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "That's probably a conservative estimate," says Jeff Michael, the NHTSA's associate administrator for research and program development.

Darrel Drobnich, chief program officer of the National Sleep Foundation, puts the numbers much higher: 71,000 injuries and more than 5,500 deaths a year. "It's a huge problem that's largely gone unreported because we don't have good, hard police data," he says.

An obstacle for police is that there is no test for drowsy driving like the Breathalyzer an officer can give a motorist suspected of drunken driving.

A new battle

Some sleep experts and state legislators say the nation's progress against drowsy driving is about where the campaign against drunken driving was 30 years ago. That was before Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), before any stigma in getting behind the wheel after drinking, before every state adopted a single standard for driving while intoxicated.

"Years ago, we didn't think anything of getting in a car after having a few drinks," says Carol Ash, medical director of a sleep program at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, N.J. "Sleep deprivation has the same impact. Your judgment becomes impaired, whether you realize it or not. We're starting to understand that drowsy driving is the same as driving intoxicated."

According to Ash and other researchers, a person who drives after 18 consecutive hours without sleep performs at the same level as a person with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08% — the legal standard for drunken driving in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

About 250,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel daily, says Charles Czeisler, director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "There's an epidemic of drowsy driving crashes, particularly among young drivers," he says.

In a national poll released last month by the National Sleep Foundation, 54% of adult drivers said they had driven while drowsy during the past year; 28% said they had actually fallen asleep while driving.

A widespread malady

About 40 million-50 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders, but like Edwards was, about 85% of them are undiagnosed. Yet they account for only a small percentage of drowsy drivers, who are more likely to be young people and night-shift workers, Czeisler and other experts say.

Legislators in some states — spurred by the deaths of constituents by drowsy drivers — are trying to address the issue. New Jersey is the only state that criminalizes drowsy driving in a fatal crash by classifying it as recklessness under its vehicular homicide statute. No state has a law dealing with non-fatal sleep-related crashes.

"The problem has been that people don't take it all that seriously," says Massachusetts state Sen. Richard Moore, a Democrat. He has been pursuing stiffer penalties since 2002, when a constituent was killed by a driver who had fallen asleep and later admitted he had been up all night playing video games, he says. "The penalty was a slap on the wrist, suspension of his driver's license for a couple years and probation."

Grateful for sound sleep

Edwards, now a night security counselor at a youth center, was working the overnight shift at the Wal-Mart in Boyertown, Pa., in 2007. He had just left work when he had the near-accident that changed his life.

After his narrow escape and at the insistence of his wife, Jamesha, he went to University Services Sleep Diagnostic and Treatment Centers in Pottstown. He learned he has obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which a person's sleep is repeatedly interrupted as muscles in the throat fail to keep the airway open.

Edwards was fitted with a mask that fits over the nose and mouth and blows air into the airway to keep it open during sleep. He sleeps soundly now and says he's thankful he didn't kill anyone: "Yes, oh my God, yes."

He was lucky: "The greatest predictor that you're going to have a sleep-related crash," Czeisler says, "is you just had a near-miss."


How to fight drowsy driving:
* Pull over
* Ingest caffeine equivalent to two cups of coffee.
* Take a 20- to 45- minute nap.

Rolling down the window and turning up the radio won't help.

Source: USA TODAY research
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