Dangers Of Drowsy Driving: A Sleep Expert’s Take

This article is part of the #STCPreventionMatters campaign from the University of Maryland Medical Center. For more information about the campaign and the Center for Injury Prevention and Policy, visit: www.umm.edu/PreventionMatters

Drowsy driving kills. Every year in the United States, over 100,000 car crashes are caused by driver sleepiness. Even worse, over a third of U.S. drivers report, having fallen asleep at the wheel. Being tired makes us slow to react in the same way drinking does. So, why are so many drowsy drivers on the road?

The biggest reason why drivers are so sleepy is, simply, that they don’t get enough sleep. Experts suggest adults get an average of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Not getting enough sleep can lead to problems like being overweight, having heart disease, uncontrolled blood sugar levels, and brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Of course, not getting enough sleep also increases your risk of getting into a car crash or getting injured in some other way. In a recent study published in the science journal SLEEP, researchers compared drivers who slept the recommended seven to nine hours to those who slept less than four hours. They learned that the drivers who got much less sleep were more than 15 times as likely to be found responsible in car crashes!

It’s not just the amount of sleep that matters. The quality of sleep is also very important for your overall health and driving safety. There are many causes of poor quality sleep. Perhaps your bedroom is uncomfortable, too loud, too bright, or too messy. Maybe you have other medical problems that do not allow you sleep well or the pills you take make it more difficult. There are also a number of different sleep disorders.

Between 50 and 70 million Americans— about one in five U.S. adults— suffer from a sleep disorder. Unfortunately, mostly due to lack of awareness, the vast majority of patients don’t even know they have it and don’t get treated. But it doesn’t need to be this way.

The good news is that sleep disorders can be easily treated to improve overall health, safety and quality of life. Under the guidance of an experienced sleep doctor, sleep testing is painless and easy. Treatments work well, and there are a number of solutions available aside from taking pills. Consider these three common sleep disorders and their symptoms:

•Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). In OSA, normal breathing is interrupted and the upper airway closes over and over during the night. Because OSA happens during sleep, patients often do not know OSA is even taking place! Snoring, sleepiness, depressed mood, and high blood pressure can all be signs of OSA. Ask yourself: Do you snore, or have you been told that you do?

•Insomnia. Insomnia involves trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, or waking up too early. During the day you may feel fatigued, sleepy, irritable, or stressed. Ask yourself: Do you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early?

•Sleep scheduling problems. Also called circadian rhythm disorders, sleep-scheduling problems happen when the internal body clock is out of sync with your school, work or other daily tasks. Shift work disorder is a common sleep scheduling disorder. Ask yourself: Do you have difficulty falling asleep and/or waking up when you want to?

If you or a loved one might suffer from a sleep disorder, talk to your doctor. Some sleep, disorders can be managed by your normal health care provider or, your doctor might refer you to see a sleep disorders specialist. At the University of Maryland Sleep Disorders Center at Midtown Campus, we specialize in treating the full range of sleep disorders. Every day, we help patients live longer, happier, healthier, and safer lives, both on and off the road.

Emerson Wickwire, Ph.D. is an associate professor for the Departments of Psychiatry and Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and also serves as the director of the Insomnia Program at the University of Maryland Medical Center that is located on the Midtown Campus