November 20, 2007
SLEEP DEPRIVATION & DRIVING
Nothing could prepare me for the news I received six years ago about the unexpected death of my close friend Joey. I will never forget the night he died. How I had been with him just minutes before, and how his death was totally unnecessary and preventable. A few weeks before Christmas in 2001, Joey, myself and a few of my other co-workers were closing down the local restaurant we worked at while attending Umass Lowell. It had been a busy night, and we didn't end up finishing work until 1am. Having worked all day, we were all extremely tired, and could not wait to go home. Most of us were staying in Lowell at the time, but Joey had chosen to commute to campus and therefore had to travel out to Reading. I remember saying goodbye to him and I remember telling him to drive safely. I never thought that would be the last time I would ever see him. I never thought that he wouldn't "drive safely," and I most certainly never entertained the thought that he was so tired that he would fall asleep while operating his vehicle. Joey died on Interstate 93, not too far from his residence. He fell asleep at the wheel and flipped his car. He died upon impact.
Many people underestimate the importance of sleep, and the story of my close friend Joey is just one among many other stories that involve people killing either themselves, or someone else while asleep at the wheel. Sleep is essential for a person's health and well-being, and deprivation can carry many detrimental implications. Accumulating research on both people and animals has revealed staggering pysiological and behavioral consequences related to sleep deprivation. Sleep is necessary for the human body to replenish its energy supply, as well as sharpen cognitive functions, and restore memory. However, despite these findings, research has also shown that millions of Americans suffer from lack of sleep/sleep deprivation. ("What is Drowsy Driving?"). Although the amount of sleep needed for total replenishment varies per individual, research has demonstrated that the average healthy adult requies at least 8 hours of rest, and should not exeed wakefulness for more than sixteen hours.
There are a plethora of consequences related to sleep deprivation. These consequences include increased risk for fatal accidents, impaired cognitive functioning, hallucinations, and inability to perform everyday tasks. Major disasters such as Chernobyl, and the Space Shuttle Challenger have both officially been linked in part to errors of judgment due to sleep deprivation. (Butkov 25) .On a smaller scale, there has been a recent focus placed on sleep related motor vehicle accidents due to a significant increase of related fatalities. Research has shown that fatigue is currently the second leading cause of motor vehicle accidents in the U.S. Studies have also confirmed that "drowsy-drivers" are comperable to those who drive while under the influence of alcohol. (Butkov 28). A study conducted to confrm this correlation disclosed the following results: Participants that drove after being awake for 17-19 hours drove worse than those who drove with a blood alcohol content level of .05. Subsequently, participants who drove after remaining awake for 20 to 25 hours demonstrated driving ability similar to those who had a blood alcohol content level of 1.0. ( Butkov 28).
Driving while drowsy is an extremely dangerous behavior. Many of us have been informed of the hazards that involve drinking and driving, but very few of us are aware of the risks associated with driving while fatigued. The issue of driving while drowsy is a controversial one, because unlike alcohol, it is nearly impossible to administer a test to determine fatigue as the primary cause of an accident. In addition to the barriers that surround proving one is fatigued, it is equally difficult to punish someone that is guilty of engaging in the act. Legislature regarding this issue is in its primary stages of developing a definition and criminal process for drowsy driving, and it may take some time before laws are securely put into place.
On a more positive note, gains are being made towards the direction of holding those presumed guilty of "drowsy driving" accountable for their reckless behavior. Unfortunately, it has taken a series of deaths in order to trigger this movement. One of the first laws developed (Maggie's Law,) was done so by the mother of 20 year old Maggie McDonnell who was hit head-on by a van driven by a drowsy driver in 1997. Mrs. McDonnell (the mother of Maggie,) was infuriated to learn that there was not a single law created to address the issue of vehicular homicide as a result of sleep deprivation, and therefore set forth to create one. Her efforts were successful, and in 2003 the nations' first "drowsy driving" law was implemented. Maggie's Law ammends the spectrum of vehicular homicide to include those who who operarte a vehicle while sleep deprived. Under Maggie's Law, offenders can be prosecuted if there is proof beyond a doubt that the operator fell asleep while driving, or was awake for more than 24 consecutive hours. Conviction under this law can carry a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. (Weaver 1).
As a future sleep technician, and a person who has suffered personally from the aftermath of a friend falling asleep at the wheel, the topic of "drowsy driving" is one concerns me. Studies show that there has been a significant rise in sleep-related crashes since the initiation of Maggie's Law in 2003, but only one recorded prosecution. Education is the key to the legislative revolution in regards to sleep-related accidents, and it is my hope that future lobbying will be the catalyst for more states to adopt more stringent laws to punish those guilty of driving while fatigued. in