By Melody Ann Feist
BYU students are among the least likely to be caught driving drunk during the holidays, but according to the National Sleep Foundation”s, 2002 Sleep in America poll driving drowsy may be just as dangerous.
“We are definitely on a collision course in this country,” said Richard Gelula, executive director of the National Sleep Foundation. “More and more drivers are on the road, and millions of them get behind the wheel feeling sleepy, apparently without considering the inherent dangers they pose to themselves and others.”
The NSF poll was released at the National Summit to Prevent Drowsy Driving in Washington, D.C. just days before some 70 million drivers are estimated to hit the roads for the Thanksgiving holiday.
According to the poll, about half of America”s adult drivers – 51 percent, or approximately 100 million people – are on the roads feeling sleepy while they are driving. Nearly two in 10 drivers – approximately 14 million people – say they have actually fallen asleep at the wheel.
“This is a wake up call to everyone who drives a motor vehicle or rides in a car, truck or bus,” Gelula said. “Driving while feeling drowsy or fatigued is a lethal combination, and is no less an impairment than driving while drunk.”
Males and young adults between 18 and 29 are at the highest risk for drowsy driving and falling asleep at the wheel, according to the NSF poll.
This marks the fifth consecutive year that 50 percent or more drivers admit to driving while drowsy in the annual NSF poll. As a result, one percent of those polled said they have had an accident because of drowsy driving, a figure that has also remained consistent over the past few years.
In a reaction to these national trends, the National Sleep Foundation has teamed up with The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, to combat fatalities during the holidays, specifically among college students. They urge universities, as well as parents of college students, to join their “Drive Alert … Arrive Alive” campaign.
College students traveling home for the holidays may face a particular risk, especially if they”ve been sacrificing sleep for studying, the organizations said.
“The holiday season, with its added stresses of shopping, parties, traveling, and year-end business and semester workloads, means less sleep for many people,” Gelula said. “That won”t necessarily keep them off the roads, although it should.”
Frank Fox, a history professor at BYU, is an avid supporter of safe driving during the holidays. Every year, he announces to his auditorium-size classes that they should take their time getting home for the holidays.
“I have had more than a dozen of my students killed in car crashes over the years,” Fox said. “The minutes you may save are not worth the decades you may lose.”
The NSF has worked with colleges in the past, including Texas A & M, which introduced the Lupe Medina Bill, named after a student who fell asleep at the wheel, said Darrel Drobnich, senior director of Government and Transportation Affairs for the National Sleep Foundation.
“NSF is currently talking to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to obtain materials that they have developed for college students,” Drobnich said. “We hope to have more materials aimed at college students in the future.”
Drobnich also gave some tips for those who may be traveling home for the holidays.
“My advice for college students would be pretty much the same for everyone,” he said. “Plan ahead and get plenty of sleep before heading out on long drives. Avoid driving at night because it increases your risk no matter how much sleep you have had.”
Drivers should take plenty of breaks and to try to drive with a companion and share the driving responsibility, Drobnich said.
“If traveling in a group, whoever rides in the front passenger seat should stay awake to help the driver remain alert,” he said.
David Willis, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, also had advice to give.
“Turning up the radio and rolling down the window do NOT keep you awake,” he said in a press release. “The only cure for drowsiness is sleep.”
Taking a power nap can help restore alertness, Willis said.
If these kinds of precautions are not taken, the results of drowsy driving can be disastrous.
“One of the most alarming findings in the 2002 Sleep in America poll is that so many people stay on the roads without stopping in spite of feeling sleepy, or even dozing off at the wheel,” Gelula said.
Of those polled, 59 percent of drowsy drivers admit they did not stop because of their sleepiness.
According to the NSF, diminished productivity and property damage add to the costs of drowsy driving, which are estimated to be $12.5 billion annually.