Dr. Traffic

Preventing drowsy driving should start before you get in your car

Certain types of traffic mishaps are more common on rural highways such as U.S. 158, just outside of Murfreesboro in Hertford County. Staff file photo
Certain types of traffic mishaps are more common on rural highways such as U.S. 158, just outside of Murfreesboro in Hertford County. Staff file photo

Just mention the letters DWI (which means driving while impaired) and we all sit up a little straighter behind the wheel. And we get regular reminders about the dangers of distracted driving. That means texting, eating, adjusting your radio or whatever you do while also operating a vehicle.

I hadn’t heard the term drowsy driving that I could recall, but I do know the agony of needing to close my eyes when still miles – hours even – from my destination.

While the term “drowsy driving” is catchy and sounds innocent, the consequences can be devastating. Falling asleep at the wheel causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, with about 40,000 injured and 1,550 lives lost, according to the National Safety Foundation.

Here’s a surprising fact: Most wrecks caused by drowsy driving are not happening on interstates. These incidents most often crop up on high-speed rural highways, and the drivers often are alone, according to the foundation. In this scenario, help might not be coming soon.

On a good day, most drivers catch themselves quickly before succumbing to the physiological urge for an unplanned power nap. Maybe you pull over for a cup of coffee or just get out to stretch your legs, although that might not be practical on a rural road.

I’d been known to sing out loud for miles to shake off sleep, but that can be scary for those around me if the windows are down. Now I usually switch to dance music for 15 or 20 minutes and then turn on a good podcast. (“This American Life” is still a favorite for perking me up).

If you’re a passenger, you may be able to spot a sleepy driver by looking at their eyes and posture. A drowsy driver doesn’t look fully alert. This not a scientific method, of course, but it’s quick and easy to do.

Preventing these traffic mishaps should start long before you get in the car, according to the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

“… any time you are not feeling well, your driving is likely to be different,” according to the N.C. Driver’s Handbook. “You may be less alert and less responsive.”

Here’s are some of the signs that you may be too drowsy to drive, from the DMV:

▪ You can’t remember the last few miles you drove.

▪ You hit a rumble strip or drift from your lane.

▪ You have difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open.

Suggestions for preventing drowsy driving amount to common sense, but it’s worth mentioning these things if it might save lives. So here goes:

▪ Rest before driving. (Like I said, common sense. But rest is often deferred when we need to get things done before a trip. Keep it on your to-do list.)

▪ Plan to stop every two hours during longer trips. Walk briskly and stretch if you can.

▪ Set a limit of 300 to 400 miles of driving per day.

▪ Watch out for medications that cause drowsiness.

Karen Sullivan: 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms