Bob Smith often fell asleep while driving a 16-ton municipal snowplow. “I’d bang into a curb, or hit a manhole, and wake up,” explains the 50-year-old father, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy.
During the last 3 years he drove for a town public works department, Smith also “phased out” and fell asleep in the driver’s seat of a moving dump truck. “I would drink 1,000 coffees and it wouldn’t keep me awake … But I had seniority and the other guys would watch out for me,” says Smith.
“I fell asleep on the way driving to see the doctor,” he says, recalling his first meeting in 1999 with Dr. Debra Pollack, director of the Gaylord-New Haven (Connecticut) Sleep Center. Dr. Pollack instantly suspended his driving privileges and diagnosed the problem. Smith has apnea, a disorder that causes the sufferer to stop breathing during sleep and, at least partially, awaken each time. Tests showed Smith’s breathing stopped dozens of times each hour every night, disrupting his rest.
“The problem was sleep deprivation,” Smith says.
Experts believe this problem is far more extensive on American roads than most people realize. And they hope a new, $56-million driving simulator at the University of Iowa will bring some solutions.
One in Five Sleep-drive
“There is a fair amount of concern about people who have apnea falling asleep at the wheel, but our biggest concern is with truck drivers,” says H. Keith Brewer, director of the office of human-centered research for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in Washington, DC. He says that many truckers simply nod off due to overwork.
That doesn’t include the increasing number of car drivers facing fatigue as a dwindling nationwide employee pool increases the demand for overtime. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2000 Sleep in America Poll found one in five drivers admitted falling asleep at the wheel. Lawmakers in several states are pushing bills limiting overtime. Maine recently passed legislation limiting overtime to 80 hours in any 2-week period.
Using information from those who lived or left evidence behind, the NHTSA estimates drowsy drivers annually cause 100,000 accidents, 1,500 deaths, and 71,000 injuries. “But it’s an under-reported, under-recognized problem,” says Darrel Drobnich, director of transportation affairs for the National Sleep Foundation in Washington, DC. Consider just those with sleep apnea and you get the picture: “At least 18 million Americans have sleep apnea and most–90-95%–are still undiagnosed and untreated at this time,” Drobnich says.
Dr. Pollack says she sees people with untreated apnea “every day of the week.” An additional problem, she adds, is that there is “a fair amount of denial.” People often don’t volunteer the information, but when she asks apnea sufferers–including some school bus drivers–about drowsy driving, they often admit “they’ve dozed off and driven into a guardrail, or dozed off at a light and driven into the car in front of them.”
The government gave new recognition to the problem with $44 million to help build the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), a driver-testing device set to open late this fall at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Shaped like the traditional notion of a spaceship, the 65-foot by 65-foot simulator encloses a car. A 360-degree computer screen inside the simulator allows drivers to be surrounded with animated graphics simulating an actual road and various traffic or weather conditions. Scientists watch a driver’s actions through video cameras.
“This is a milestone, bigger than any driving simulator in the world, including flight simulators,” says L.D. Chen, a university engineering professor directing the NADS program. NADS will enable scientists to safely gauge the effects of various factors on driving, including fatigue, sleep deprivation, alcohol, allergy medications and over-the-counter cold remedies.
Possible Futuristic Solutions
“We’re trying to improve traffic safety,” explains Ginger Watson, head of human research science at the university. The testing may lead to “futuristic” devices in cars like eye-blink sensors that can tell when a driver is falling asleep and sound an alarm or trigger a computer to take over the wheel and steer the car to the roadside, she says.
NADS will open in November or December and is expected to operate 40 hours a week, says Chen. The initial research plan calls for testing of blood-alcohol levels on driving, as well as “driver distractions” like cellular phones. “In the next year or so, issues of drowsy driving and sleep deprivation are in the game plan,” adds Brewer.
Yet some officials have mixed feelings about the research. “We think something like this can actually help give us a look into the science of fatigue and how to combat it,” says Drobnich. “But education is the key. It really is a matter of drowsy drivers needing to get off the road.”
Dr. Pollack says, “My sense is that any of these things, like those ‘futuristic’ devices and putting grooves in the roadway sides to wake drivers going off to the side could help. But they obviously don’t address the underlying problem: A lot of sleep disorders go unrecognized.”
For more information on sleep apnea and drowsy driving in general, visit the National Sleep Foundation Web site: http://sleepfoundation.org
Article By: Debbie Carvalko, Medical Writerr