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?
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.
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.
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 www.sleepfoundation.org.
For more by Russell Rosenberg, Ph.D, click here.
For more on sleep, click here.