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Is Your School Bus Driver a Risk to Your Children?

Sleepiness can impair drivers by causing slower reaction times, vision impairment, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information.
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Over 480,000 school buses travel the nation's roads every day. Twenty-six million children, more than half the nation's school-aged population, rely on the bus to transport them to and from school. Drivers must be patient, focused, and alert to safely transport children each day.

In early December, 17-year-old Emmanuel Williams had to rouse a snoozing 65-year-old bus driver during an afternoon commute in Tacoma Hills, Wa. From his view in the second row seat, Williams first noticed the driver slowly closing his eyes and nodding off before approaching turns. When the bus started heading off the road, Williams jumped from his seat to wake up the sleeping driver.

Prior to this incident, the driver had an impeccable driving record throughout his eight-year employment with the Tacoma public school system. Investigators are still examining the cause of the driver's dozing. What could cause a bus driver to fall asleep while operating a vehicle loaded with noisy adolescents?

Drowsy Driving

While investigators continue to look into the cause, the most logical conclusion is that the bus driver was simply tired, something that should not surprise our overworked and sleep-deprived culture. According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2011 Sleep in America poll, one-third of Americans admitted to getting behind the wheel even though they were so sleepy they could barely hold their eyes open at least once within the previous month.

Sleepiness can impair drivers by causing slower reaction times, vision impairment, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information. Additionally, studies show that staying awake for more than 20 hours results in impairment equal to a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent, the legal limit to drive in all states. The National Sleep Foundation also cautions that a lack of sleep creates the possibility of falling into a 3-4 second microsleep without realizing it.

To prevent drowsy driving, try the following:

  • Sleep! While it is the most obvious cure for drowsy driving, many people do not schedule sleep into their night preceding a big drive. If you know you will be driving a long way, or even if you have noticed an extra yawn or two during your morning commute, plan to head to bed at least eight hours before it is time to get up.

  • Take a break. The National Sleep Foundation suggests a break every 100 miles or two hours to keep drivers alert on the road. Also, do not be afraid to break more than suggested if needed. Stretching your legs with light exercise will help keep you awake and able to arrive at your destination safely.
  • Find a copilot. Williams ended up an unlikely copilot for his bus driver, but his quick actions most likely saved lives. When possible, bring along a friend or coworker to keep you alert and to give you the chance to hand off the keys if you start feeling sleepy. Carpooling to work is a great way to save money and prevent drowsy driving.
  • Sleep Disorders

    Another possible cause of a driver falling asleep at the wheel is an undiagnosed sleep disorder. More than 70 million Americans suffer from one or more sleep disorders, which may or may not have been diagnosed. Sleep disorders affect your ability to complete tasks and your overall health, leading to drowsy driving or falling asleep on the job.

    Three sleep disorders that may be responsible for the Tacoma Hills case:

    • Sleep apnea. Characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing, sleep apnea affects more than 12 million Americans. The most common symptom for sleep apnea is excessive, loud snoring. An individual with sleep apnea is rarely aware they have the disorder -- most sleep apnea cases are diagnosed after a bed partner complains of excessive snoring. Although you might not know you have sleep apnea, you will feel the effects of dissatisfying sleep on your health and body. Sleep apnea patients are often unusually tired regardless of what time they go to sleep, as the sleep is so disruptive.

  • Narcolepsy. Characterized by excessive daytime sleepiness, narcolepsy is estimated to affect up to 125,000 to 200,000 Americans although fewer than 50,000 have been officially diagnosed. While most people do not experience REM sleep until after 90 minutes, narcoleptics can enter the REM stage of sleep within 10 minutes. Many are misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorders or accused of just being lazy. Common symptoms include excessive sleepiness, feeling paralyzed upon waking, or feeling a loss of muscle tone in response to a strong emotion.
  • Insomnia. Insomnia is an increasingly common complaint among older patients. As mentioned, the bus driver in Tacoma Hills is currently 65. Both short term and chronic insomnia can be caused by stress, pain, changes in a patient's environment or new medication. A healthy night's sleep is essential to physical and mental health. Sleep is vital for our concentration and memory and maintaining our immune system. A National Sleep Foundation poll of older adults found a relationship between both physical and mental health and the quantity and quality of sleep. Older adults with more medical conditions and a less optimistic outlook on life reported sleeping less than the recommend 7-9 hours per night.
  • While it is scary to imagine the individuals we trust to safely transport our children to school as a danger, it is important to remember that drowsy driving or a sleep disorder can affect anyone. If you or someone you know has problems staying alert or awake, consult your family doctor or a sleep physician.

    For more information on drowsy driving and sleep disorders, visit the National Sleep Foundation at at

    For more by Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D, click here.

    For more on sleep, click here.