Wake in fright

words - Tim Britten
Simple advice: Don't become a road statistic just because you ignored the signs of feeling sleepy at the wheel

Of all the hazards confronting car drivers during the upcoming holiday season, nothing is more fearsome, yet as familiar to most of us, as the risk of falling asleep at the wheel.

According to a report in 2011 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the USA: “Drowsy driving was reportedly involved in 2.2 to 2.6 per cent of total fatal crashes annually during the period 2005 through 2009, nationwide.”

Australian road accident statistics show that “at least” one in six crashes are mainly the result of driver inattention or lapses, with as much as one quarter of single-car accidents on country roads resulting in death attributable to the driver falling asleep at the wheel.

That is a significant number of deaths that could have been avoided with the prior application of a little bit of common sense.

A quick, around-the-office session at motoring.com.au revealed that just about everybody had had a driver-fatigue experience, from running off the road to actually rolling the car after crossing that critical line between wakefulness and sleep. Fortunately, and perhaps amazingly, no-one had been hurt or injured as a result.

Embarking on the roads during the holiday season, there are a number of risks that may not be present during everyday driving involving reasonably short trips. As well as being populated by many drivers not accustomed to facing a number of hours behind the wheel, often in an environment conducive to attaining a drowsy, inattentive state (long, straight freeways where there is less in-your-face driver demand), the roads during holiday season have quite a different dynamic from the regular peak-period rush. The adrenalin rush is replaced by a sleep-hormone-induced state.

As with any other aspect of preparing for a driving holiday, getting yourself ready to take on the road is important for not just the safety of you and your family, but also that of other drivers sharing the road with you.

Preparation before embarking on a long drive includes getting plenty of sleep in the first place. If you hit the road fresh, you will stay awake and alert a lot longer than if you get behind the wheel after a short, disturbed night of sleep.

Addressing the issue of drivers who do find themselves slipping into drowsiness while on the road, the voluntary group Sleep Disorders Australia lists a number of methods that can be used to ensure a safe, enjoyable, fatigue-free driving experience.

It might sound obvious, but the signs to look for include your eyes closing or going out of focus by themselves, having trouble keeping your head up, the inability to stop yawning, wandering thoughts, the inability to remember driving the past few kilometres and drifting between lanes, off the road, or missing road signs.

Although it may seem equally obvious what corrective measures can be taken to maintain or return to driving alertness, it is worth reiterating what can be done, and how effective the measures are. The options, in fact, are many.

If drowsiness seems imminent, one of the best things to do is hand over to another driver – assuming he/she is alert and rested in the first place – who can take the wheel long enough for you to get some rest. If you can’t do that, then stop (in a safe place well away from traffic lanes) where you can grab even a short nap, this can be amazingly beneficial. Often a short rest will enable you to drive safely for some hours, even if the signs before stopping indicated otherwise.

In fact, recommendations by Sleep Disorders Australia include keeping the nap to not much more than 15 minutes, then taking a walk for five minutes or so before resuming behind the wheel.

Common misconceptions, such as the one that claims a cup of coffee is a great thing to restore alertness, are worth mentioning. According to Sleep Disorders Australia, “Drinks containing caffeine, such as coffee or cola can help you feel more alert, but the effects last only for a short time.”

At the same time, the voluntary roadside rest stops dispensing free tea and/or coffee are a boon during holiday periods, not just because of the drinks dispensed, but also the accompanying break from being on the road.

The belief that a driver is able to monitor his/her state of alertness is as inaccurate as it is common. “If you’re drowsy, you can fall asleep and never even know it. You also cannot tell how long you’ve been asleep. When you’re driving, being asleep for even a second can kill you or someone else.”

Likewise, the common belief some drivers have that they are able to function even when sleepy, or that they are actually unable to nap even when tired, are dangerous misconceptions with potentially serious consequences. If you begin feeling tired, that short catnap can do wonders for restoring your driving capabilities.

Sleep, at the right time and in the right place, is vital to our health. At inappropriate times, such as when driving a vehicle, it is a downright disaster.

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Published : Thursday, 20 December 2012
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