Think about this: approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population reports frequent short sleep. In other words, 30 percent of the population gets four to six hours of sleep a night. Most of us recognize that this is far too little sleep for us to function well. Ask yourself, how many hours of sleep do I need to be 100 percent alert the next day without having to drink excessive amounts of caffeine? Now ask yourself, how much sleep you actually get every night?
I am willing to bet there is a gap of at least 1-3 hours between those two numbers, and if you're nodding your head in agreement as you read this, you're definitely not alone. Some days we are too tired to get in our daily exercise, or other times we're nodding off in the middle of a hectic work day. Even worse, we may not let ourselves become aware of our sleepiness because we are just caffeinating ourselves as needed to get things done. Honestly, caffeine might be one of the biggest addictions in the world! All of this can take a toll on our productivity. Now you may think that you can manage in your everyday life on little sleep and that the consequences you might have suffered from cutting back on weekday sleep are not that dire, but there is one serious consequence that is not terribly forgiving: drowsy driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This number is almost double what it was 20 years ago and is likely very conservative, given that there is no equivalent test to determine sleepiness as there is for intoxication. And speaking of intoxication, being awake for more than 24 hours produces impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of .10 (for reference, at or above .08 is considered legally drunk). The reality is that 37 percent of adult drivers have actually fallen asleep at the wheel in the last year...and this number is only growing. If your impulse is to say that this does not apply to you, ask yourself if you've ever felt your eyes closing or your head nodding while driving. Have you ever had to open the windows to keep yourself awake while driving? If the answers are "yes," then you've driven drowsy, period. A common association with drowsy driving is long car rides. While it is more likely that drivers of 3+ hour car rides lose momentum, there are other causes of drowsy driving that we should all be more aware of.
Take sleep deprivation, for one. It's no secret that we are a busy, career-driven, working-until-all-hours-of-the-night-just-to-wake-up-and-do-it-again kind of society. However, it's imperative that we put sleep at the top of our never-ending to-do lists. Getting better sleep, and being aware of this need for sleep, majorly decreases your risk for drowsy driving. Our addiction to caffeine isn't helping. I discussed in a recent article the ways that we use caffeine as a Band-Aid to our sleep deprivation, hereby making us completely unaware of just how sleep deprived we really are.
Our frequent avoidance of sleep in lieu of tasks we deem to be "higher priority" and our addiction to caffeine is only the tip of the iceberg. Undiagnosed sleep disorders are another major cause of drowsy driving. Sleep apnea, for example, causes serious health conditions, disrupted sleep patterns and inability to work or drive effectively. According to the American Sleep Apnea Association, about 80 percent of moderate and severe cases of obstructive sleep apnea go undiagnosed. EIGHTY percent.
Sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction and sleep disorders are certainly to blame for drowsy driving, but what can you do to make sure you're taking all precautionary measures when it comes to your sleep and driving? With the National Sleep Foundation's Drowsy Driving Prevention Week fast approaching, I encourage you to take a look at your own habits and see how you could prevent drowsy driving. Determine what is standing in the way of you getting the sleep you need to really get a hold of your quality of sleep. If the answer is a caffeine addiction, I'd like to put forth a small challenge to you: cut back on your caffeine intake. This might be hard, so perhaps begin by decreasing your intake by half. When doing so, be aware of the effect it has on your fatigue, mood and ability to think clearly. If you're noticing symptoms of poor performance and fatigue, you need better sleep. Additionally, if you notice yourself unusually or regularly fatigued, be proactive and express your concerns with your doctor. Because sleep isn't usually the first thing that comes up during your regular visits with the doctor, it is important to bring up these conversations to determine if you might be struggling with an underlying condition, such as an undiagnosed sleep disorder. I encourage you to give these behavior changes some thought and take it seriously - your wellbeing might depend on it.