No Survivors - Three people die when Airman falls asleep at the wheel

  • Published
  • By TSgt Lawrence Richards
  • 316th Training Squadron, Goodfellow AFB
In late April, a 23-year-old Airman first class from Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, crossed the center line while driving south on Texas Highway 195. He had a head-on collision with another vehicle driving in the opposite direction on the two-lane, undivided highway. The Airman and both occupants of the other vehicle died from injuries sustained in the crash.

The Airman had only gotten three hours of sleep the night before the accident, because, according to this mother, heʼd had trouble sleeping because he was excited about graduating from technical school. He had already driven nearly 140 miles that day, had made a stop at his sisterʼs house, and was 35 miles into the next leg of his trip when the accident occurred.

Accident investigators say it appears the Airman fell asleep at the wheel.

According to the National Sleep Foundation and their Sleep in America poll, 60 percent of drivers on American roads have driven while sleepy and 37 percent of those polled admitted to having fallen asleep at least once while driving in the last year.

The true statistics for drowsy driving, though, are difficult to determine. Many people wonʼt admit to putting themselves and others in such a dangerous predicament, and it is often difficult for police to determine if those killed in accidents died as a result of falling asleep behind the wheel.

How dangerous is drowsy driving?

Driving while drowsy has been proven to be exceptionally dangerous; reaction time is impaired, as are judgment and vision. More than 100,000 police-reported accidents each year in the United States are attributed to falling asleep behind the wheel. Many of these accidents occur at full speed as often the drivers do not wake in time to apply their brakes prior to impact.

It is estimated that being awake for 18 hours has an equal effect on performance as having a blood alcohol concentration of .08 percent, which is legally drunk in all 50 states. Almost all police officers surveyed reported that they had pulled over a driver they thought was drunk, but was sleepy instead.

Some people are at a higher risk of falling asleep while driving than others. High risk categories include: drivers under the age of 25; shift workers; those with sleep disorders such as sleep apnea; and business travelers or those who frequently experience jet lag.

We in the military often fall into some or all of these categories. Our jobs often force us to work long hours and variable shifts. This is why we must be especially aware of drowsy driving and must ensure our co-workers are aware as well.

Knowing the warning signs of being drowsy can help you determine when you may be unfit to drive. These are some signs that you should stop driving: difficulty focusing, frequent blinking or heavy eyelids; daydreaming; trouble remembering the last few miles driven, missing exits or traffic signs; and drifting from your lane, tailgating or hitting a shoulder rumble strip.

These symptoms, however, are not always conclusive. According to a report on drowsy driving crashes by the American Automobile Association, nearly one quarter of all drivers identified as "asleep" when they crashed reported not feeling at all drowsy just before their crash.

The most important thing you can do to reduce your chance of driving while drowsy is to get the proper amount of sleep. Most of us need seven to nine hours of sleep to maintain proper alertness. In addition, here are some other ways you can help avoid this danger:

● Plan to drive long trips with a companion.
● Schedule regular stops.
● Drive during daylight hours.
● Avoid alcohol and medications which may increase your drowsiness.
● Consult your physician if you suspect you may have a sleep disorder.
● Consume the equivalent of two cups of coffee's worth of caffeine.

Keep in mind that caffeine takes about 30 minutes to enter the bloodstream, will not greatly affect those who regularly use it, and is a temporary fix. A short nap will improve your wakefulness faster and more effectively. Some other traditional measures used to counteract drowsiness while driving include:

● Roll down the car windows.
● Turn up the radio.
● Stop to stretch.

These methods have long been used in varying effect to enhance wakefulness, but all are less effective than avoiding sleepiness in the first place.

The threats posed by drowsy driving are truly eye-opening, but the methods of lowering your risks are simple. Learning the signs, risks and countermeasures of drowsy driving will do much to help lower your chances of being involved in a drowsy driving accident.

Remember, a stop at a rest stop or hotel is worth it when your life and the lives of others depend on it.