Being on the road this time of year means sharing it with an unheavenly host, including drivers who tipped back too many hot toddies at the company Christmas party and shoppers who text gift lists on the way to the mall.
Driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs or electronic devices is an absolute no-no in Washington, punishable by jail time or a hefty fine. If you give in to these urges and see a flashing red light in your rearview mirror, it’s probably not Rudolph the Reindeer.
There’s another all-too-common form of risky behavior behind the wheel that doesn’t carry the same stigma, though it’s more dangerous than most folks realize, according to a new study.
People who sleep only five or six hours a night nearly double their odds of a vehicle crash compared to those who are more rested, according to a report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, based on case studies of 7,234 drivers involved in 4,571 crashes.
It gets worse.“Our new research shows that a driver who has slept for less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director for the AAA foundation.
Keep that in mind as you crowd your December calendar with good cheer and after-hours festivities. Be smart when planning long car trips for family holiday visits. Counsel your college kids before they cross mountain passes on the way home for Christmas, staring into headlights while daylight runs scarce.
Experts advise driving only during hours when normally awake, foregoing heavy foods and medications with sedative qualities, and taking a break every two hours or 100 miles.
Another effective tool, we’ve discovered, is loudly singing 1980s pop music classics with cold air rushing through open windows. Duets work best. Don’t travel long distances alone; trade off driving with an alert passenger.
But nothing works better than getting adequate sleep, an increasingly rare commodity. More than a third of American drivers catch less than the recommended seven hours of Z’s per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So sleep-deprived is our society that over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house isn’t the only time these accidents occur; people also nod off during errands and routine daily car trips. In a tragic incident last March, a man fell asleep driving on South Tacoma Way at 10:45 a.m.,striking and killing a 35-year-old man on the sidewalk.
“Drugs or alcohol are not believed to be involved,” the news stories often say, though victims’ families are no less traumatized with that knowledge.
Four years ago this week, Linda Burkhardt was out Christmas shopping for her grandkids when she was killed in a crash near Yelm, caused by a driver who dozed off.
This accident received more attention than most after Burkhardt’s daughter fought to have rumble strips installed in the road and pushed for action in Olympia. But Washington, like most states, hasn’t found a way to legislate against this problem beyond staging awareness weeks and other education efforts.
Unlike drinking or Facebooking, sleepiness is not a willful act. A few states, however, have extended reckless driving and negligent homicide penalties to motorists who haven’t slept in 24 or more hours.
Left to patrol their own exhaustion, Washingtonians shouldn’t minimize drowsy driving just because it’s not expressly criminalized here. They would do well to get plenty of rest and take seriously what the experts are saying about the boozy effects of fatigue.
Drive alert, arrive alive. Take a break to stay awake. Repeat these pledges over and over, with the windows down, if it helps.