Fatal Crash Focuses National Attention on Drowsy Driving

AAA: One in six fatal traffic accidents result from drowsy driving

By Mike Sheldrick

The recent injury to comedian Tracy Morgan and the death of Jimmy Mack, a fellow passenger, after a collision on the NJ Turnpike has focused national attention on the problem of drowsy driving. About time.

The incident on June 9 involved Kevin Roper, a Walmart driver, who NJ state police said, had gone without sleep for 24 hours before he hit the star’s limousine. Walmart said in a statement that the truck’s driver was in compliance with federal hours-of service requirements. “Federal law requires drivers to work no more than 14 hours for any shift and 11 hours of driving.” NJ police charged the Walmart driver with vehicular homicide under a law that prohibits driving after 24 hours without sleep.

Sadly, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial, the Senate Appropriation Committee had several days earlier voted to rollback a Department of Transportation regulation that requires truck drivers to take at least 34 hours off after working 60 hours in seven consecutive days or 70 hours in eight days. In the aftermath of the incident, the move — spearheaded by Susan Collins, Republican of Maine — has given some momentum to opponents of the rollback, but the outcome still hangs in the balance.

Weak regulations

Many think the current regulations, even if followed, are too weak. They permit, as Walmart points out, 11 hours of driving with only a 35 minute break and a 14 hour work day.There seems to be little chance that this will be changed in an election year and a interstate trucking industry likely to provide funds only to those legislators supporting its position, which apparently is to relax the requirements.

The regulations pertaining to over-the-road trucking and the need to loosen or tighten them notwithstanding, drowsy driving is a very serious problem that has received far too little attention. To be sure, falling asleep at the wheel is the extreme, but there is a broad spectrum, from “brain fog” to actually falling asleep. It is impaired driving, along with distracted driving.

Prohibiting driving while drowsy will be much tougher than banning phone use for voice, texting, or internet browsing while driving. Drowsy drivers number in the millions, reported a 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll, 60 percent of adults said they had driven at least once while drowsy, and 37 percent admitted to have fallen asleep at the wheel in the previous year. That’s just what they admitted to. It’s well known that people often lie in answering such questions because they are too embarrassed to admit the truth. So, we probably can guess that the real numbers are higher. In any event, AAA reports that one in six fatal traffic accidents result from drowsy driving.

Sleep deprivation

Some of the most incisive commentary since the incident comes from researchers at Rutgers. “When you are sleep-deprived for more than 24 hours, you need stronger sensory stimulation to maintain alertness,” explains Xue Ming, a sleep medicine doctor at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark. “Sensory input such as light, noise and touch keeps people alert, but when there’s little stimulation, the brain will drift into a full sleep state or a micro sleep, which can last from a fraction of a second up to 30 seconds. In this state, the person feels like he is awake – he might even still have his eyes open – but he is actually asleep.”

That means that camera-based retinal sensors are not a fully effective means of measuring drowsiness, or even the best way. Some NIH researchers suggest supplementing, or using exclusively, measures such as steering wheel movement, and lane keeping; behaviors like odd head movements, higher-than-normal eyelid closures; and physiological measures like an EEG or heart rate. These last measures, they say, may be the best way to measure drowsiness, but are the most intrusive of all, and thus likely to be rejected by many if not all drivers.

Drivers are most vulnerable to drowsiness from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. he says. That’s when their circadian rhythm – which regulates periods of sleepiness and wakefulness – dips. The circadian rhythm also prompts people to feel drowsy in diminishing daylight. “If a person had a big meal at lunch or did not sleep well the night before, this decline is more prominent,” says Ming, who stresses that shift workers are particularly vulnerable when they leave work in the early morning hours.

Ming suggests a few tips to help enhance driving alertness for limited periods: a 20-minute nap, two cups of coffee or similar caffeinated beverage, brightening the dashboard or purchasing a visor light box that simulates morning light for the passenger side, since light boosts alertness.

“But, if you are feeling really tired,” Ming says, “the best thing to do is park your car and call a cab.” Though we need seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep to feel fully alert, Ming says, most Americans get six or fewer. In fact, about 70 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 8.6 million Americans take prescription sleeping pills, which might affect alertness and coordination.

Sleep driving

“Sleep driving” grabbed headlines when Patrick Kennedy and Kerry Kennedy reportedly had Ambien in their systems in separate crashes in 2006 and 2012.

“It’s difficult to tell how a sleeping pill will affect an individual and how they drive the next day,” says Beatrix Roemheld-Hamm, associate professor, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick. “For example, women typically are smaller than men, so the drug might affect them differently.” She notes that the FDA has warned people taking the longer-acting Ambien CR not to drive at all the following day.

Fleet policy

Eliminating drowsy driving will be impossible. What fleet manager would dare tell an employee not to watch Jimmy Fallon the night before a long drive the next day? Still, this is a problem that needs to be addressed by every fleet. If you have a policy that you think can minimize driving while drowsy, please share it with us.

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