Under The Influence

250,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel in the US every day.

250,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel in the US every day.


In all probability, you have driven under the influence in the past year. Whether you realize it or not.

While we as a society in the US have gone to great lengths to recognize and prevent the dangers posed by individuals driving while impaired by alcohol and drugs, that is not the only, nor likely even the greatest, threat to keeping impaired drivers off the road.  Driving while sleep deprived is a far more common occurrence and yet one that most of us do not begin to realize the prevalence nor seriousness of.

In less than 20 hours awake, it is easily possible to reach a level of impairment from sleep deprivation equal to or greater than the .08% legal limit for blood alcohol content. I can remember countless times when I knew I’d been awake too long and wasn’t at my best driving home; my reaction time was delayed, my observational skills were sluggish, I suddenly noticed an exit that was 5 miles past the last one that registered and couldn’t remember anything in between.  We’ve all done it, and it’s a serious mistake with potentially fatal consequences.

I have now seen experiments done on sleep deprived subjects who drove on closed courses while being medically monitored.  One man was reduced to 4 hours of sleep per night.  Driving on the third day of the experiment, he made the kinds of mistakes you’d expect of a drunk person.  But, far more disturbing is that the medical instrumentation recorded that his brain actually went to sleep more than 30 times over the 20 minutes or so of the experiment.  This is a phenomena known as microsleep, which has only come to be known and studied in recent years.

It works like this:  your brain functions remarkably similarly to a computer.  At any given moment, there are tasks you have given it to do (typing this post, for example) and yet, at all times, it is doing other things.  Things like regulating your heartbeat and body temperature, processing visual and auditory inputs, regulating your breathing, thirst, hunger.  It’s an incredible amount of workload performed in general with amazing efficiency.

And yet, like a computer, overload your brain or deprive it of the resources it needs to compute those tasks and, like your computer, something has to give.  If you continually open browser windows without closing any, your computer runs low on memory and begins to “swap out” some tasks so it can focus on others, using its own discretion to decide which is most important.  Your brain is no different.  Contrary to what was long believed until recently, when you sleep your brain is actually busier than when you are awake and it is handling functions that are literally life and death.  Stories you have heard about people who can go days and days without sleep are just that – stories.  After a day or two of sleep deprivation, your brain will start doing what computer programmers call “stealing cycles” in order to get some sleep.  It will literally shut down and sleep, even if only for fractions of a second, whenever it can get away with it.  You will have no choice in the matter and will not know about it until it’s too late.  You might appear to be awake, but you aren't exactly - not at all times. There you are, stopped at a red light, and only the horn blast from the car behind you makes you realize that you need to go because the light has turned green.  Sound familiar?

So, maybe you or I made that drive home and didn’t know that we had 20 microsleep incidents while behind the wheel.  If it happens at that one critical second when you need to do something to stay safe, you may never get home at all.  According to the US DOT, a staggering 250,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel on US roads every day.  That is a shocking number.  We know not to drive after having a drink or two, and now we need to learn that it is just as irresponsible and dangerous to get behind that wheel when we are not adequately rested.  Unlike alcohol, sleep deprivation usually leaves no signature behind after an accident, so a significant number of the accidents on our roads every day are likely caused by it and never explained.

So, now that you know the danger, make an informed decision not to drive when you are not well rested.  Your life depends on it.




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