The Alphabet Soup of Highway Safety

By | May 22, 2015

When the head of a federal agency recently pledged to double down on the problem of Triple D on the highway, he wasn’t referring to Guy Fieri’s road trips in search of diners, drive-ins and dives.  Dr. Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was talking about the three D’s of preventable accidents:  Drunk driving, Distracted driving, and Drowsy driving.

Rosekind was in Chicago in March to address the Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities when he discussed NHTSA’s new safety campaign to combat drowsy driving.  As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the agency chief, a scientist focusing on sleep and fatigue, explained: “While not everybody drinks or texts or speeds, lack of sleep is a problem we all face. And falling asleep at the wheel at 70 mph is a recipe for tragedy.”

Too Many Ds

In 2013, 32,719 people lost their lives in crashes on U.S. roads.  That computes to 90 deaths every day, and every hour more than 250 people are injured in vehicle accidents.  It has been easier to get a handle on the number of traffic deaths caused by drunk driving — blood alcohol tests tell the tale.  But it’s much harder to know whether an accident was caused by a driver who was pushing the limits of fatigue and nodded off or lost concentration.

Rosekind pointed out at an October 2014 forum of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that while police reports show driver fatigue may directly contribute to over 100,000 highway accidents annually, other estimates put that number at more than one million.  NHTSA wants to increase public recognition of the dangers of drowsy driving and improve data gathering by law enforcement to make statistics more reliable and produce a clearer picture of the extent of the problem.

A number of studies about fatigue and drowsy driving were discussed in NHTSA’s 2013 report, Countermeasures that Work, including a AAA Foundation survey in which 41% of respondents reported having fallen asleep or nodded off while behind the wheel.  Other surveys defined the typical characteristics of drowsy drivers and their experiences:

  • They’re more likely to be male than female.
  • They’re more likely to be young than old.
  • Risk is not limited to late-night driving: One-third of the respondents noted problems between noon and 6 p.m.
  • Fatigue is not necessarily due to the number of hours behind the wheel: Half of those who nodded off had been in the car for an hour or less.
  • Shift workers are at a high risk of drowsy driving.
  • Adults with children in the house are more likely to drive while fatigued.

While exploring countermeasures such as installation of rumble strips, better lighting and highway design, researchers have concluded that the most effective, “simplest” countermeasure is for people to get more sleep.  Lack of sleep can impair driving skills in several important ways:

  • Slowed reaction time
  • Impaired judgment and vision
  • Inattention to road signs and changing conditions
  • Moodiness and aggressive behavior
  • Reduced eye-hand coordination.

Not enough Zs

This year the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) revised their guidelines for how much sleep is needed by humans in different age groups.  After a two-year study by sleep researchers and representatives from numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Geriatrics Society, American Neurological Association, American Psychiatric Association, Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, and Society for Research in Human Development, the NSF released updated recommendations.  Adults 26 to 64 years of age need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, a figure that has not changed; however, the optimal range for most other age groups was widened.

If you don’t get enough sleep in bed, you may have episodes of “microsleep,” brief periods when part of the brain falls asleep while the rest of it is actually awake.  Lasting from a few seconds to two minutes, microsleep episodes happen without a person’s being aware of them, and in fact a person in this state will even look awake because their eyes continue to blink.  Scary, huh?  It’s really scary when you consider that a vehicle speeding down the highway at 70 mph may be “under control” of a fatigued driver experiencing microsleep.

The University of Iowa studied “Driver Performance in the Moments Surrounding a Microsleep” and found that in this state a driver is likely to decelerate, failing to maintain the recommended speed; is likely to veer out of his lane, especially on curves; and is going to become more dangerous the longer he is behind the wheel.

While many people fail to get sufficient sleep as a consequence of their busy lifestyles, some medical disorders can also cause drivers to fall asleep at the wheel.

  • Insomnia — difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep — affects 11% of the U.S. population, according to NSF estimates, and they are 2 to 3 times more likely to be involved in a motor vehicle crash than those who are well rested.
  • Sleep apnea, in which breathing briefly stops, causes fragmented nighttime sleep and daytime sleepiness, and people with this disorder who are undiagnosed and/or untreated are up to 6 times more likely to be in a car accident.
  • Narcolepsy, a rare disorder of the central nervous system, can cause a person to fall asleep suddenly, at any time.
  • Medical conditions such as COPD and arthritis can also interfere with sleep and increase daytime fatigue.

You can expect to hear more from the NHTSA in coming months as they sharpen their focus on the third of the deadly Ds.  They will be conducting more surveys and studies, examining technological advancements in vehicle design that could help drowsy drivers, and exploring the effectiveness of state laws to combat fatigued driving.  In Arkansas, for example, a driver who has not slept in 24 hours and causes a fatal accident can be prosecuted for negligent homicide, and in New Jersey, a driver who has not slept in 24 hours is considered to be driving recklessly, in the same class as a drunk driver.

R U a drowsy driver?

You can help combat your own tendency to be a drowsy driver by adopting these healthy sleep habits recommended by the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Make a sleep schedule and stick to it.
  • Have a relaxing bedtime ritual.
  • Avoid afternoon naps if you have trouble sleeping at night.
  • Get some exercise every day, even if it’s just a little.
  • Keep the temperature in your bedroom between 60 and 67 degrees.
  • Use things like noise machines, fans, and window shades to keep out distractions.
  • Get a good quality mattress and replace it every 10 years.
  • Avoid bright lights and electronic devices in the evening.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and large meals at night.
  • Instead of tossing and turning if unable to sleep, get up and do something relaxing.
  • Keep work materials, computers and televisions out of the bedroom.
  • If your sleep issues persist, discuss it with your physician.

In short, as an individual, your best countermeasure to one of the deadly Ds is to get plenty of Zs.

Attorney Mike Stephenson has served as lead trial counsel in more than 100 civil jury trials, and has handled litigation in 18 states. A personal injury attorney in Indiana, Mike is a partner with the firm McNeely Stephenson. Martindale-Hubbell has rated him as an AV attorney. His current practice is dominated by civil litigation in state and federal courts. He focuses much of his time on handling catastrophic injuries caused by all types of accidents, including motor vehicle, semi, industrial, product liability, and fire, just to name a few. Mr. Stephenson is also member of the LawGuru Attorney Network.




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