Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sleeping and Driving

It is frightening to jerk awake after dozing off at the wheel and find yourself on the wrong side of the center line. It was after one such incident that I realized dozing behind the wheel was every bit as evil as driving drunk, and I view such drivers as true low life. It is something they choose to do that endangers the life of the rest of us. Finally, I realized my behavior was no different. It had to have been the grace of God that kept me from killing some unsuspecting motorist.

Once the truth of this hit me, I quit driving while sleepy. If I start getting drowsy, I pull over and sleep whether in a car or on a motorcycle. I have more than one picture taken by a riding partner where I am napping alongside the road or on a picnic table beside my motorcycle.

So, when I decided to get a job distance driving, I knew I’d have to get a handle on this problem. First I called my brother who is a long haul trucker. "What do you do when you get drowsy?" I asked.

His answer surprised me. "I drink a bottle of water," he said.
Next, I did what I always do when I want to know something; I got a book by the leading expert on the subject, in this case, “The Promise of Sleep,” by Dr. William C. Dement, M.D., Ph.D., and discovered some interesting facts. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was caused by sleep deprivation in spite of what was commonly reported in the national press. The same was true of the Challenger accident. We Americans get one and a half hours less sleep a night than our grandparents. Most sleep related problems go undiagnosed because doctors aren't required to study sleep issues in medical school and there are few clinics nationwide that specialize in sleep. Jonesboro happens to have one.

The doctor believes that sleeping while driving is a major killer in our society. Making people aware is a mission with him. (It might have helped his cause had he dealt with it in a pamphlet instead of a 500 page book.)

Here's the information I found useful. On the average, we need one hour of sleep for each two hours we are awake. During the day, we accumulate sleep debt and pay it back at night. If we are up 16 hours and only get seven hours sleep we have an hour of unpaid sleep debt. If we don't pay it back, the debt accumulates. If we let the debt get too big, the body forces the payback.

Most of us run a sleep debt all week and then pay it back on weekends. Some of us pay it back by napping. The way to tell if you have a high sleep dept is by how fast you go to sleep when you go to bed at night or when you take a nap.

If you knock off in less than five minutes it is because you carry too much sleep debt. It takes some sleep debt, say eight hours for 16 hours of wakefulness, to make you sleepy. With a normal sleep debt, it should take about 15 minutes to go to sleep. Assuming you are not dealing with a disease like sleep apnea or narcolepsy, the proper management of sleep debt will keep you awake while driving as well as keep you alert while on the job.

Also, our internal clock or Circadian rhythm gets involved. This clock got set in the distant past when people got up and went to sleep by daylight and darkness. At certain times of the day, our internal clock starts getting us ready for sleep. If your sleep debt is too large, it is hard to override you internal clock and stay awake. This becomes a serious problem when traveling rapidly through several time zones or dealing with jet lag.

Another valuable thing Dement noted was that the caffeine in that cup of coffee you are drinking to kill the drowsies, won’t kick in for at least 15 minutes. If you wait until you are dozing at the wheel to stop and get that coffee and then get back in your car and keep driving, you haven’t helped yourself. Drink the coffee before you start dozing. Its effect will last four or five hours.

The message was pretty clear. If I want to quit dozing off while driving, keep my sleep debt paid up, drink my coffee well before I need it, and drink lots of water to reduce dehydration.

So, how did it work out? Since reading and applying the information in the book, I have driven many hours without getting drowsy. It works!

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