Trapped in the wreckage of her car, Rachel Johnson spent three and a half hours in a ditch on the side of the highway, waiting for help that wouldn't come until daylight. Johnson had been on her way to surprise a friend, driving through Iowa in the middle of the night. Just prior to the crash, she noticed that she was feeling drowsy.
"Instead of pulling over, I just thought, 'I'm not tired enough to fall asleep,'" she told KETV. "And two seconds is all it took."
Johnson nodded off and rolled her car violently onto the side of the road, where, in the pitch darkness, car after car drove past, unable to see the twisted metal of the wreck and the woman clinging to life trapped inside.
Johnson's story serves as a cautionary tale for what has become a serious public safety issue: Drowsy driving. According to several government agencies and private research groups, fatigue behind the wheel is a growing problem, and can be just as serious as drunk driving.
The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), a system used to detail the factors behind traffic deaths, showed that in 2011, about 2 percent of fatal accidents involved a driver being asleep or fatigued behind the wheel.
That may not sound like a lot, and, on the surface, the numbers are hardly suggestive of an epidemic. But the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration ( NHTSA) knows that these stats aren't telling the whole story. Drowsiness as a factor in fatal accidents is much more difficult to quantify than it may seem, according to Jurek Grabowski, Research Director at AAA.
"Only 2 percent of fatal accidents are coded as involving a drowsy driver," Grabowski said. Meaning, that's what the police who reported the accident determined the cause of the crash to be.
The reality is that most of the time, it is entirely unclear if a driver was drowsy at the time of a fatal accident. A dead driver can't tell a responding police officer that they were feeling sleepy when they went off the road or hit another car. This results in inaccurate reporting. Grabowski said that a whopping 73 percent of fatal accidents go down in the books as having drowsiness as a possible factor, but not an official factor.
So what is going on here? Simply put, people aren't getting enough sleep, according to Dr. Elizabeth A. Baker, a regional administrator at NHTSA. And driving while sleep deprived is very similar to driving drunk, impairing motor skills, vision, cognitive ability and decision-making.
Our modern American culture places little value on sleep, and people are getting less and less of it every year. An increasing number of us don't go to bed at a proper time, suffer from sleep apnea and other disorders, work at night or are overweight or have other health issues, all of which disrupt our circadian rhythms and keep us from having a restful night.
A recent NHTSA survey found that 60 percent of drivers drove while drowsy in the past year. A 2009 National Sleep Foundation poll of 1,000 drivers found that 28 percent had driven drowsy in the past month, an alarming 28 percent had actually nodded off or fallen asleep while behind the wheel and 1 percent had an accident as a result of being sleepy or falling asleep.
Combatting drowsy driving
"We have a long way to go to make a dent in this serious problem," said Baker. Because of the lowball accident and fatality numbers and general lack of awareness about drowsy driving, tools to combat the issue have been slow to develop. Laws aimed at punishing drowsy drivers are in the works, but no real testing parameters for fatigue have been designed for use in the field.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC), AAA and the National Sleep Foundation have launched education and awareness programs. Government and private industry groups are also undergoing more comprehensive studies, like Grabowski's, to get a better idea of how many, when and where people are engaging in the risky behavior.
Car companies have begun to include safety technology that alert people when they are driving drowsy. Mercedes-Benz and Volvo both have developed systems that can sense a fatigued driver and warn them accordingly.
The most successful recent development in combating drowsy driving has come in the form of new infrastructure. Rumble strips on the side and center lines of roads that are designed to alert a driver when they are drifting from their lane have been highly effective, said Baker. And better rest areas have been made more available, giving drivers the chance to pull of the road.
At the end of the day, though, the most effective way to combat drowsy driving is to not engage in the behavior yourself. As a whole, we need to sleep more, drink less and be much more self-regulatory when we're feeling drowsy behind the wheel, said Dr. Anne G. Wheaton, an epidemiologist at the CDC.
If you're experiencing drowsiness behind the wheel, which can be diagnosed by yawning, inability to remember the last couple of miles driven, blinking more than usual, having trouble keeping eyes open and/or hitting a rumble strip, you need to get off the road, she said.
"It's not just about falling asleep -- the ability to drive is impaired," she said.
If you experience these symptoms, the best thing to do is to stop driving and find a place to sleep. If that's impossible, the next best thing to do is to drink some form of caffeinated beverage and take a short nap while you wait for it to kick in. This only works for a limited time, however, and should only be used as a strategy to get you somewhere you can sleep for a proper amount of time.
Popular remedies for fatigue behind the wheel like turning up the radio, opening windows and exercising don't work, according to Dr. Wheaton.
A remarkable recovery
After she was found, Johnson was life-flighted to the hospital, where doctors assessed her physical state. It was bad. She had lost so much blood that her body temperature was down to 88 degrees. Her spine was completely broken near the neck, and doctors told her that she had very little chance of ever using her hands or legs again. But she never gave up hope.
"At first I thought about that and it made me sad," Johnson told KETV. "But then I thought, no there's a chance. Because someone has to be that lower percentage, so why not me?"
Never giving up, she worked at her rehabilitation for weeks and, after a while, began to regain usage of her arms. She can now put on makeup and use a cell phone. She is still confined to a wheelchair, but she has vowed that she'll continue to work on her physical therapy and, one day, walk again.
Johnson's story comes with a marginally happy ending, but there are still thousands out there that do not. Every day, we're on the road, functioning at a fraction of safe mental capacity because we're tired. Remember to look for the warning signs, especially when driving at night or on lonely roads, and you can help reduce the risk of a tragedy.