Sitting on a comfortable sofa in her living room, with her two young kids, Corrina still can't believe she's sitting there in one piece. A couple years ago she fell asleep at the wheel of her BMW and slammed into a freeway central divider at 70 mph. As a result of a number of factors, the LA County resident walked away unharmed with some minor scratches and glass in her hair. She was alone in the car at the time, but her tale is familiar to many who have either fallen asleep at the wheel or driven drowsily, or those who warn about the dangers of drowsy driving.
Obviously the issue of driving while drowsy is common, but just how common? Who does it most affect and what are some remedies that experts suggest to combat the problem that causes more than 56,000 crashes every year?
Drowsy driving: horrific consequences
Corrina, now 40, dropped her husband Tim off at work in Los Angeles and was driving her 528i sedan southbound in the third lane of the 405 Freeway at about 10.30 a.m. on a cold morning on the California coast. Traffic was flowing freely after the rush hour traffic had abated. Corrina was wrapped in a blanket as the car's heater was broken. She says the fact that she had her seatbelt buckled over the blanket may have saved her life (of course, she also says that the fluffy duvet could have been the reason she fell asleep). She had set the cruise control to 70 mph.
"I was driving home and apparently I fell asleep. So my hands came off the wheel and my feet came off the pedals but because of the cruise control the car kept going. Basically I took a sharp turn left, barely missed a car (which she later found out from a witness to the crash, who pulled over and called 911 to report the smash) and I went straight into the center divider. The only reason I am alive to tell you about it is because I randomly hit the yellow safety barrels, the first of about seven barrels. I went through two or three of them and I did not wake up until after the impact. I remember waking up with little pieces of glass on me and sand from the barrel."
Corrina also had a heavy club-lock security device laying directly behind her in the back seat. "That thing was embedded in the dashboard. When I went forward it went right over my head. And you couldn't pull that thing out of the dash. That could have been in the back of my head.
"Needless to say I completely totalled the car and I ended up walking away from the crash. I had a couple scratches on my hands from the crash (but) I had no damage from the seatbelt because I had this big thick blanket on and I was so limp and asleep that when I crashed I had no whiplash. And I didn't hurt anyone else, which is the most important thing. The witnesses, the people who saw the crash, said they couldn't believe it wasn't a fatality."
Corrina recalls several other tales about nearly falling asleep at the wheel while driving back from college late at night and she says her dad fell asleep while driving back from Mexico. Anecdotally, one driver reporting three instances of drowsy driving or falling asleep at the wheel could indicate the problem is more common than thought.
Who's most at risk?
The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration suggests some common factors behind crashes involving a drowsy driver: The crash occurs late at night or early in the morning; it is likely to be serious; a single vehicle leaves the roadway; the crash occurs on a high-speed road; the driver does not attempt to avoid a crash; the driver is alone in the vehicle.
Crash factors may include sleep loss, driving patterns – early morning or late at night, for example, use of sedating medications, untreated or unrecognized sleep disorders, or consumption of alcohol.
The NHTSA says that, young people (ages 16 to 29), especially males, are most at risk. Shift workers whose sleep is disrupted by working at night or working long or irregular hours also face increased risks.
The young, male shift worker who drives at night
Austin Lewis, 25, works back shifts for a Southern California newspaper. He often works until midnight before driving about 20 miles home from work. He's also an avid concert-goer and will travel around much of California to see his beloved hard rock bands, often taking long late-night trips over many hours on freeways. Occasionally, he'll drive eight to ten hours to see his family in northern California but he's never experienced a near miss while drowsy.
Contrary to some experts' findings, Lewis says he thinks working late nights "helps me stay awake when I go to concerts or take long road trips, because on normal nights I usually don't go to bed until 2 or 3 a.m. anyway. So I can go to a concert that ends at 11 p.m. as most of them do. Even if it's far away I still get home before I'd go to bed on a normal work night."
He continues: "I usually prefer driving longer distances late at night. There are fewer vehicles on the road, so driving isn't mentally exhausting like it can be during morning hours. I don't drink energy drinks ever, but on some of my long drives I'll make sure I have plenty of soda in the car with me. And then I usually keep a chocolate bar or two with me in case I start to drift off and need some sugar but I rarely have to dig into them.
"To keep my mind occupied on longer drives, sometimes I'll set the cruise control for an odd speed (59 mph, 63 mph, 67 mph, depending on what the speed limit is) and pay attention to the signs I pass that tell you how many miles you are from the next big city. When I pass a sign I'll do math in my head to l figure out exactly how many minutes it should take me to get there, just as an exercise to keep my mind working. And then once I pass the city, or pass another sign with a new distance, I'll change my speed by a mile or two per hour and do the same thing."
Recommendations for avoiding driving while drowsy
The NHTSA says helpful behaviors include (1) planning to get sufficient sleep, (2) not drinking even small amounts of alcohol when sleepy, and (3) limiting driving between midnight and 6 a.m. As soon as a driver becomes sleepy, the key behavioral step is to stop driving-for example, letting a passenger drive or stopping to sleep before continuing a trip. Two remedial actions can make a short-term difference in driving alertness: taking a short nap (about 15 to 20 minutes) and consuming caffeine equivalent to two cups of coffee. The effectiveness of any other steps to improve alertness when sleepy, such as opening a window or listening to the radio, has not been demonstrated.
On the road
Mark Sedenquist, publisher of roadtripamerica.com, says drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving. He says fatigued or otherwise impaired drivers bring unnecessary risk to both themselves and everyone around them. He advocates resting as much as possible before a long trip and to adapt a "jet fighter" mentality to try to stay alert: A driver who feels their attention is wavering should scan the road ahead as much as they can and attempt to reach the concentration levels required to fly a million-dollar plane, which could help them stave off the dreaded drowsiness.
On a lighter note, Sedenquist adds: "At RTA, we are big proponents of doing the 'Chicken Dance' at rest stops – it’s entertaining to the folks in the area, and it is highly effective against fighting 'the sleepies' when driving."