It’s 11 pm, rush hour is long gone, and you are jamming down the interstate after four late nights of business meetings, and early morning breakfasts with key clients. Life is good, your sales will set a record, and you are going to get a big Christmas bonus check. It’s been an exhausting trip, and you are bone tired, but instead of staying over you decide to put the pedal to the metal, and get yourself home a day early to break the good news to the family: Your boss is going to award you Salesman of the Year.

Your window is down, the stereo volume cranked up to 11, the air conditioner blowing like an arctic winter. With 120 miles to go you step it up to 80 mph and will be home in only 90 minutes. But you are really exhausted and regret not pulling over this afternoon for a quick nap at a rest stop. You usually take a nap after eating a heavy meal, and that truck stop meat loaf you ate for dinner was large enough to make a bear go into hibernation. A deep yawn and you realize that with the window down, and the AC cranked up your eyes are as dry and scratchy as sandpaper.

At 80 miles per hour the first quick blink is free. There you go, good idea. That did the trick, your eyes feel a little better now. A few minutes later another yawn, and the second soothing blink lasts a little longer, exactly one second longer. At 80 mph you travel 117.5 feet closer to home every second. Another yawn, and a you close your eyes for a longer blink, for exactly three seconds or over 352 feet closer to home. In only three seconds you have traveled over the distance of a football field.

With your eyes closed.

God Almighty does it feel good. Home soon, your own bed, no rattling ice machine, no shouting outside your door, no kids jumping off beds in the room above you, a chance to sleep in…

A loud, rapid thumping shakes the whole car and startles you out of your daydream. You are fine, you tell yourself to calm down, that you just got lost thinking about how you were going to enjoy the look on your wife’s face when you break the news about your bonus. Hey, relax, it’s cool, you have it all under control. The Botts Dots did their job and jolted you awake. You start to wonder, “Who was that guy Botts?* What kind of name is that? I bet he made a million bucks off his dots. Maybe all he got was a bonus?” You just need something to do to keep awake for the next few miles, so you decide to put on a little country music.

But tonight lady luck is playing by baseball rules, and you have already struck out. Before you died in your sleep you were alive for 5 more seconds or to put it another way, you were 585.5 feet closer to home when you slammed into the rear of the car in front of you, and went from Salesman of the Year to a Highway Patrol statistic. Funny thing though, the radio was still on and playing your favorite country group, Asleep at the Wheel.

According to the Centers for Disease control, drowsy driving is a “major problem” in the United States. It can happen when a driver has not slept enough or suffers from an untreated sleep disorder, fatigue from shift work, medications, or even legal levels of alcohol. No one knows how to predict the exact moment they will fall asleep. But we all know that falling asleep at the wheel is dangerous. But do you know how dangerous drowsy driving is? CDC researchers have begun to measure drowsiness and have found that it:

  • Makes drivers less able to pay attention to the
  • Slows reaction time if you have to brake or steer
  • Affects a driver’s ability to make good

The CDC says that prevention is the key to solving the drowsy driver problem. They recommend all drivers follow these guidelines:

  • Get enough sleep! Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep a day, while teens need at least 8
  • Develop good sleeping habits such as sticking to a sleep
  • If you have a sleep disorder or have symptoms of a sleep disorder such as snoring or feeling sleepy during the day, talk to your physician about treatment
  • Avoid drinking alcohol or taking medications that make you Be sure to check the label on any medications or talk to your pharmacist.

This is all common sense. But the size of the problem is enormous according to research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation and the American Automobile Association. Together they sponsor Drowsy Driving Prevention Week each November. In a 2005 national poll they found that:

  • 37 percent of people said they had fallen asleep at the wheel
  • 13 percent said they did so once a month
  • Nearly 25 percent of adults say they know someone personally who has crashed due to falling asleep while driving

Those are astonishing numbers, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) backs them up with similar research with numbers that are also cause for concern saying “… estimates 100,000 (this is likely to be a conservative number) police-reported crashes are the direct result of sleepy drivers every year, resulting in a roughly 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries.” The NHTSA also says, “Young adults ages 18-29 are more likely to say they’ve driven drowsy (71 percent), compared to roughly half of adults ages 30-64.

Indeed, it’s estimated that younger drivers account for almost two-thirds of drowsy-driving crashes, even though they represent only one fourth of licensed drivers.”

Just as interesting is when and where most drowsy driving accidents occur:

Sleepiness can result in crashes any time of the day or night, but three factors are most commonly associated with drowsy-driving crashes.

Drowsy-driving crashes:

  1. Occur most frequently between midnight and 6 a.m., or in the late afternoon. At both times of the day, people experience dips in their circadian rhythm—the human body’s internal clock that regulates sleep;
  2. Often involve only a single driver (and no passengers) running off the road at a high rate of speed with no evidence of braking; and
  3. Frequently occur on rural roads

How can we solve this problem?

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reviewed all the recent studies and came to these conclusions:

Warning Signs

  • Yawning
  • Inability to keep eyes open
  • “Nodding off” and trouble keeping your head up
  • Inability to remember driving the last few miles
  • Ending up too close to nearby cars
  • Missing road signs or turns
  • Drifting into other lanes or onto rumble strips on the shoulder

Prevention

Rolling down the windows or turning up the volume on the radio will do little to increase your alertness while driving. These are some better ways to avoid drowsy driving:

  • Get a full night of seven to eight hours of sleep before driving
  • Avoid driving late at night
  • Avoid driving alone
  • On a long trip, share the driving with another passenger
  • Pull over at a rest stop and take a nap
  • Use caffeine for a short-term boost
  • Take a short nap after consuming caffeine to maximize the effect
  • Arrange for someone to give you a ride home after working a late

In short, don’t push yourself, listen to your little voice that’s telling you that you are too tired to drive and get some rest or make other arrangements. If you are driving a long distance, make plans to take a break every couple of hours or every 200 miles. And get a good night’s rest before beginning your journey.

*Yes, there really was an Elbert Dysart Botts. He was a CALTRANS engineer tasked with overseeing a project to increase lane visibility. During field testing in 1955 the tactile feedback created by the dots was discovered. Which is interesting because CALTRANS was developing them to solve the problem of paint disappearing underwater. (We can’t make things like this up. Quick tip: If you can’t see the stripes on the road because the water is too deep turn around and take another street.) Botts also created the epoxy used to glue them to the road surface. Botts died in 1962 and never saw his invention used. In fact, it was lost in a filing cabinet until it was rediscovered years after his death.