In 2007, I was commissioned by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles in Massachusetts to research and prepare a report to the state Legislature on the impact of Drowsy Driving. The report was mandated under a floor amendment to a highway bond bill, and intended by the amendment’s sponsor to gain some attention to this vital but rarely discussed safety issue. The full report can be read here.
What I learned during the six months spent on this project was stunning. Dr. Charles Czeisler, a sleep researcher at Harvard, explained how a person driving after 18 straight hours without sleep has the same impairments and slow reactions as a drunk driver. Dr. Czeisler and other members of the National Sleep Foundation noted that the three leading at-risk groups for drowsy driving crashes include college students; truckers; and medical residents and interns.
One such victim who lost his life in this fashion was Jim Berkowitz, a young law student at Wake Forest who was driving back to campus the week after the clocks were turned back in 1986, and never made it. Jim’s family recently agreed to partner with The Safety Institute to raise money and awareness for Drowsy Driving prevention. You can learn about Jim’s story by visiting our website.
When the report was released, some in the media derided it as government-sponsored drivel from the department of obviousness. But sometimes common sense needs to be disseminated so that people think of it in a common-sense manner. In other words, it is not sufficient to shrug and say “yeah, medical residents have to work long hours. What you gonna do?” The common sense response is to limit the consecutive hours they are forced to work.
The same applies to truck drivers, as my local Teamsters representative stressed. College students, as always, are a tougher crowd to reach, but in Massachusetts at least we were able to enlist the aid of our college nurses and health clinics to spread a method of prevention on campus.
There is also a good reason why Drowsy Driving Awareness Week occurs in November. Here in the Northeast, it gets dark around 4 p.m., and commuters used to driving home in the late afternoon twilight are suddenly navigating in the pitch dark. Crash data supports the theory that we are more tired when the days grow shorter, and are perhaps in greater need of additional rest, caution and caffeine.
And so, as we mark this year’s observance of Drowsy Driving Awareness Week, from November 12-18, TSI urges all of you to use common sense on the roads. And if you find yourself feeling tired, don’t open the window or blast the radio (or worse, light a cigarette) – find a safe place to pull over and take a break.