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Driving while tired can be deadly


Most everyone has seen and heard announcements warning about the dangers of driving while drunk or while texting. But one leading cause of car accidents is often overlooked.

Drowsy driving is responsible for at least 100,000 crashes, 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in losses every year, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Earlier this month, a Sky Express bus driver was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Caroline County for falling asleep at the wheel in 2011 and driving off the road with a bus full of passengers, killing four.

According to a 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll, 52 percent of adult drivers said they have driven drowsy, 37 percent in the last month. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety says young people are even more likely to drive drowsy.

In a recent AAA survey, one in seven drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 said they had nodded off while driving at least once in the past year, compared to one in ten of all drivers.

Two local young drivers blamed driving drowsy for their serious car crashes in 2009 and 2010. Both have shared their stories widely in the hope of keeping others from driving drowsy.

Kyla Fletcher was 19 and had gone through her day on one hour of sleep when she fell asleep at the wheel and flipped her car off the road in Caroline County. She suffered facial lacerations, an injured knee, a concussion and a brain hemorrhage.

Kyle Preston was 19 and also driving on little sleep when his car veered across the median and off the highway in Fauquier County. He spent 21 days in the intensive care unit and months in rehabilitation with a severe spinal injury that paralyzed him from the chest down.

Fletcher and Preston speak to high schools to raise awareness of the dangers of driving drowsy.

The National Sleep Foundation says that being awake for 18 or more hours straight impairs judgement as much as a 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration. It’s illegal to drive with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 or more.

Those most likely to drive drowsy, the foundation says, are:

  • young people
  • shift workers
  • those who work long hours
  • commercial drivers
  • business travelers
  • people with undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorders.

“A lot of people are in a hurry nowadays,” said Dianne McKee, manager for Mary Washington Hospital’s Sleep and Wake Disorders Center. “They push themselves instead of stopping.”

Indications that you’re driving while drowsy include:

  • difficulty focusing
  • heavy blinking or trouble keeping the eyes open
  • wandering thoughts
  • yawning repeatedly
  • trouble remembering the last few miles driven
  • missing exits
  • trouble keeping your head up
  • drifting out of the lane
  • feeling irritable or restlessness.

“Drowsy driving is preventable,” McKee said. “100 percent preventable.”

The best ways to prevent drowsy driving are to get a good night’s sleep of about seven to nine hours; have a companion on long drives; and take breaks every two hours or 100 miles, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Should you find yourself getting drowsy behind the wheel, pull over and take a 15–20 minute nap, the foundation advises.

Also, keep in mind that while the caffeine content in two cups of coffee can provide a couple hours’ worth of energy, the caffeine can take half an hour to take effect. It’s better to take a nap if you continue to feel tired.

Anyone who regularly has trouble sleeping should consult a doctor, McKee said.

Bridget Balch: 540/374-5444