Thursday, February 14, 2008

Drowsy Driving: A Good way to Get Yourself Killed.

It was late. My wife Barbara and I were both tired. It had been a nearly two-hour drive to get to a family gathering at our son's house. And now, though wiped, we faced the long drive back.

I was driving. I have driven tired many times and never thought much about it. It was just another thing that one had to do from time to time. Despite yawning and droopy eyes, I always get where I am going. I'm in control. I would never fall asleep.

However, soon the hum of the engine and the monotony of the dark highway made my eyes heavy. I yawned. I fought the drowsiness. We rode in silence, both too tired to talk, both just wanting to get home and hit the pillow.

My head dipped and each time it did, I shook it off. I remember asking myself: "Are we ever going to get there?" And then I heard a loud noise, like a train rumbling to a halt. "Oh my God!" Barbara said.

We were heading off the road -- at over 70 miles per hour! Just as we were about to plunge off the road, my eyes snapped open and I grabbed the wheel. I was able to swerve back onto the road.

We looked at each other. At the very next exit, Barbara took over the driving. With me asking her how she was doing all the way, we got home alive. With my falling asleep at the wheel, the issue now for us was life and death.

I had blacked out in an instant. If there had not been a washboard-like warning strip along the edge of the road -- which made the loud rumbling noise -- or if there had been oncoming traffic -- there was not -- that could have been the end for both of us.

We were lucky. I fell asleep at the wheel and lived to write about it here. Many other people are not so lucky. Every year 100,000 crashes are attributed to drivers falling asleep at the wheel, leading to 1,500 deaths and many more maimings.
Katie Drentlaw is one who died. It was spring and the 18-year-old track star and budding poet was excited about life. She had just accepted a full track scholarship at Missouri State University. She had spent the day watching her future teammates compete in Des Moines, Iowa.

At the end of a fun day, Katie and a friend and fellow athlete climbed into her SUV for the 3 1/2 hour drive back home. She never made it. Just 12 miles from her house, Katie fell asleep at the wheel and her vehicle ran off the road and crashed. She was killed instantly. Her friend suffered several broken bones, but survived.

Last summer, Michael Misch/Sayadoff, 26, had a brand new 2007 Ford Fusion that was his pride and joy. He never let anyone drive his car. But after attending a concert in the San Francisco Bay area with three friends, he felt too tired to drive. He wanted to play it safe.

It was in the wee hours of the morning. Michael pulled into a rest stop and asked his friend and roommate, Adam Mellow, to drive. Michael got in the front passenger seat and his date sat behind him. Adam's date, Trisha Watson sat in back behind him.

For many miles, all was well. Then, three exits from their destination, Adam fell asleep. The car drifted off the road and plunged into a grove of oak trees. Trisha was killed, dying at the scene, and Michael suffered horrific, life-altering brain injuries. Adam and Michael's date walked away with minor injuries.

Michael spent three weeks in a coma and today he is unable to stand, walk or use the bathroom. He cannot get out of bed to get into his wheelchair. He is in constant pain. He lives in a care facility near his parents' home. It is a life that he had never imagined.

You can read more about Michael and Katie in, a site devoted to raising people's awareness of just how common falling asleep at the wheel is -- and its often horrific consequences. The site has the stories of many other victims. Though most are 25 and under, drivers of all ages become victims of sleep-related crashes.

We are a nation that burns the candle at both ends. We work and play and drive at all hours and accept drowsy driving as something that goes with an active life. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60% of Americans say they drive while drowsy and 37% admit to nodding off at the wheel.

We don't realize how dangerous this is. I know I didn't -- until I had a close call. But the sober reality is that sleepiness is a factor in one-fifth of car accidents. It's also to blame in one-third of fatal truck accidents. This is roughly equivalent to alcohol and drugs combined as causes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many experts say that these figures are seriously understated. Unlike alcohol and drugs, sleep leaves no evidence in a driver's breath or blood. And more subtle signs of the sleep factor, such as no sign of braking and a slow drifting out of lane, are often overlooked by accident investigators.

There is also something called "highway hypnosis" that people can drive under for miles. They may not fall asleep but their judgement and reflexes are impaired nonetheless. I think I was a bit hypnotized by the road, the drone of the engine, and the quiet.

It doesn't take much to become a driver at risk of falling asleep at the wheel. William Dement, a nationally known sleep expert, tells us that whenever we do not get enough sleep, we accumulate a "sleep debt" that does not dissipate. It accumulates and builds up. Even sleeping 30 or 40 minutes less per night than is needed quickly leads to a 3-4 hour sleep debt -- and drowsy driving.

Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, graphically explains what this means in terms of cognitive impairment. Average four hours of sleep for five nights and he says you build the same level of impairment as being awake for 24 hours -- equivalent to legal drunkenness.

Sleep experts all say that sleep is a biological necessity and there is no substitute for it. They say that if your eyelids are getting heavy, you should have pulled over a half hour ago to get some sleep or change drivers.

You can fight the urge to sleep but that is a losing battle. The more you fight it, the more your system works to put you to sleep. As Dr. Czeisler says, "the body's homostatic drive for sleep can seize control involuntarily."

I knew I was tired and drowsy. I actively fought falling asleep. Yet I still did. So much for my being in control at the wheel. I am no match for homeostasis, which basically regulates our sleep needs and makes us sleep even if we don't want to.

But don't take my word for it. Let me quote from the National Sleep Foundation on the function of homeostasis, which is the process by which the body maintains a "steady state" of internal conditions such as blood pressure, temperature, and the amount of sleep needed:

"From the time that we wake up, the homeostastic drive for sleep accumulates, reaching its maximum in the late evening when most individuals fall asleep. Although the neurotransmitters of this sleep homeostastic process are not fully understood, there is evidence to indicate that one may be the sleep-inducing chemical, adenosine. As long as we are awake, blood levels of adenosine rise continuously, resulting in a growing need for sleep that becomes more and more difficult to resist. Conversely, during sleep, levels of adenosine decrease, thereby reducing the need for sleep."

Also working for sleep and against our control of it is something called Circadian rhythms. This is a sort of biological clock consisting of a group of neurons in the brain that drive the human sleep cycle over a 24-hour period. The clock synchronizes sleep behavior with the physical and social environment.

In humans, light is the strongest synchronizing agent. Light and darkness act as signals that "set" the biological clock that determines when we should go to sleep and wake up. The circadian clock is a friend of social and work schedules since it promotes wakefulness and regularity.

The National Sleep Foundation sums up the way the homeostatic system and the circadian clock work together for our wellbeing by promoting seemingly contrary goals:

"Thus the homeostatic system tends to make us sleepier as time goes on throughout the waking period, regardless of whether it is night or day, while the circadian system tends to keep us awake as long as there is daylight, prompting us to sleep as soon as it becomes dark."

So now you know who has the last word on when you go to sleep and wake up and it is not you. Fight homeostatis and the circadian clock and you are asking for trouble, as anyone who travels long distances by plane or who works the graveyard shift or who runs up a big sleep debt can attest. Fool with either one and you pay.

It is much smarter to suck up to these two lords of sleep. The best way to do this is to keep a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day, even on days off, weekends, and vacations. The lords of sleep will love you for it. What they hate is when you keep crazy hours and refuse to sleep when they tell you.

Me, I've learned who is boss. As I write this, it is late on a Friday night (11:15 to be exact) and I am wide awake and on a roll as I write these words. I hope to be able to stay up long enough to finish this piece and post it.

It has been a long day. I was up at 5:15. I wake up automatically at about that time every day. I went out to get my beloved New York times and read it while munching on a half a bagle and a half an orange and sipping black coffee.

By 7:30, I was on the tennis court for a bracing game of doubles. I played for two hours and then worked out for a half hour: stretching, sit-ups, squats, push-ups, balance exercises. Then came shopping for supper (fresh haddock and asparagus), a nice lunch (chicken, tomato&avocado salad, mango, yogurt -- yummy).

At 1:00 p.m, I was at my computer starting to write this piece. I couldn't get going. I struggled for an hour or so and managed to write crap that I simply erased. Then, around 2:00 p.m., my eyes got heavy and began to close. The lords of sleep were calling me.

Like a perfect suck-up, I hit the couch and was out almost immediately. I slept like a baby for over an hour. Now we tend to think of sleep as a time of "shutting down" and it is in the sense that we are not walking around doing things. But it is actually an active physiological time.

During my hour nap, all of my major organs and regulatory systems -- including our two lords of sleep -- kept doing their vital jobs. If my sleep was as deep as I think it was, my brain, for example, would have been intensely active. A good deal of thinking goes on while we sleep, such as sorting and storing memories and working on unsolved problems.

I think it is very likely that my brain, working completely unsupervised while I was conked out, was trying to figure out how to organize this article. When I woke up, I felt refreshed and the words did begin to flow. It is now 12:30 a.m. and I am on a roll. (I just heard my arch-enemy Marty Griff say, "Yeah, but you're still writing crap.")

Marty may be right since I have strayed from the main topic, the lethal threat of drowsy driving, to the general subject of sleep. So let me end with what I have learned from my experience with falling asleep at the wheel:

1. Don't be a hero. Drowsy driving can easily kill or maim you.

2. If you're driving, and you start blinking a lot, yawning, bobbing your head, missing exits or traffic signs, pull over. Take a nap of at least 20 minutes or let someone else drive. Coffee can help, since caffeine can temporarily block sleep receptors in the brain.

3. When the lords of sleep tell you to sleep, do what you're told. They know your sleep needs better than you do.

4. The best antidote for drowsy driving is behavioral change. My experience falling asleep at the wheel has changed me. I am never going to drive drowsy again.

You know, pardon me while I yawn, I'm getting sleepy. I'm so glad I'm not driving. It is now almost 1:30 but I think this article is done and I can now go to bed. 5:15 will come fast and I will wake up then as usual. In the afternoon I may have to stick Barbara with the grandkids while I take a longer than usual nap.

I'll just tell her that the lords of sleep are making me do it.

So long and keep moving.

NOTE: My novel, State Kid: Hero of Literacy is now available on Amazon and with the Nook.

Billy Stone was a foster child.

He ran away from abuse.

He went to juvenile prison.

He went up from there.

And he did it his way.

With the power of the written word. 

Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

 "State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life;  "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life,"  is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
   For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver
State Kid
Unlove Story