Rules of the Road

Feeling a little drowsy? Don’t drive home; just pull over and take a nap

Drivers who are feeling drowsy should pull over and rest rather than put themselves and others at risk. Sleep-deprived people, according to a nationally renowned sleep expert, have decision-making skills that are 50 percent worse than a well-rested person and reaction times are 50 percent worse. Rest areas, such as this one near Custer on northbound Interstate 5, are a great place to stop and rejuvenate.
Drivers who are feeling drowsy should pull over and rest rather than put themselves and others at risk. Sleep-deprived people, according to a nationally renowned sleep expert, have decision-making skills that are 50 percent worse than a well-rested person and reaction times are 50 percent worse. Rest areas, such as this one near Custer on northbound Interstate 5, are a great place to stop and rejuvenate. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: My job involves shift work and long hours. Sometimes I’m driving home after being awake for 24 hours. If I fell asleep at the wheel, would I be considered impaired? Could I get a DUI?

Answer: In response to your first question, yes, you are impaired. But no, you won’t get a DUI for drowsy driving. Washington’s Driving Under the Influence law is written specifically to address drivers under the influence of “intoxicating liquor, marijuana or any drug.” The law has a narrow scope because it addresses a specific issue. That doesn’t mean that a drowsy driver gets a free pass, just that the DUI law is not the right law to counter this problem.

Although we usually think of alcohol or drugs in connection with impaired driving, there are other things that impair our ability to drive.

The traffic safety community often refers to the four D’s of driving drunk, drugged, distracted and drowsy. Each type of impairment comes with its own problems and its own solutions.

In previous columns we’ve considered the first three D’s, but today we’ll look at drowsy driving. Maybe you’ve heard the quote, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” That’s just a rip-off of Benjamin Franklin, who over 200 years ago said, “There will be sleeping enough in the grave,” demonstrating that since the founding of our country we’ve been undervaluing sleep.

Until a few days ago, I thought the primary danger of drowsy driving was falling asleep. Then I attended a seminar by a nationally renowned sleep expert. This expert has done extensive studies regarding the effects of sleep deprivation, and the results of these studies show that a lack of sleep impacts many areas of our lives. I’ll just focus on how sleep (or not enough of it) affects driving.

Here’s the basic message: When you’re sleep-deprived, all your performance is degraded. How degraded, you ask? Decision-making skills are 50 percent worse than a well-rested person. Memory is 20 percent worse. Reaction times are 50 percent worse.

Think about that – when we lack sleep, about half of our decisions are bad or at least less than optimum. People who missed out on two hours of sleep performed at levels similar to a person with a 0.08 percent blood-alcohol level. Sleep-deprived drivers are between two times (drivers with six hours sleep) and 20 times (drivers on the road between 2 and 6 a.m.) more likely than a well-rested driver to get in a crash.

The other part of the problem is that when we’re drowsy, we misjudge how much our lack of sleep affects our performance ability. Because we are bad judges of our own condition, we’re likely to drive when we really should take a nap. Instead, we probably just roll down the window and turn up the stereo. And according to studies, that actually works, but only for about 10 minutes. The only real solution to drowsy driving is sleep.

How pervasive is drowsy driving? When asked about driving in the previous 30 days, 4 percent of drivers admitted to falling asleep. Last year about 328,000 crashes were attributed to drowsy drivers. Of those, 109,000 resulted in injuries and 1,550 resulted in death.

But those numbers are misleading, because we don’t have a test for drowsiness like we do for alcohol or drugs. Instead, crash investigators rely on observations or the statements of drivers. As you might expect, people aren’t always willing to admit to something that puts them at fault, so drowsy driving crashes get underreported.

Getting back to the law, only two states, New Jersey and Arkansas, have laws that specifically address drowsy driving. In Washington, a drowsy driver who “endangers or is likely to endanger” someone else would most likely be charged with negligent driving. Considering the potential consequences of drowsy driving, here’s the best advice: Take a nap.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information, visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

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