Thursday, January 26, 2012


by Carole Jackson
Bottom Line’s Daily Health News

Would you let a friend get behind the wheel of a car if he’d just been drinking and wasn’t steady on his feet? The answer is certainly "No." But if you’re like most people in the US, you wouldn’t hesitate to let a friend drive when he’s incapacitated for another reason -- drowsiness. It’s time to wake up to a danger that causes nearly 5,500 deaths a year.

Surprisingly, drowsy driving has gotten little attention compared with other driving dangers, including speeding, drinking alcohol, failing to fasten seat belts or being distracted by cell phones and other devices. That’s why AAA’s recent campaign against drowsy driving caught my attention.

I phoned J. Peter Kissinger, head of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, who told me that, in his opinion, drowsy driving is the largest unrecognized problem on the highways. In a recent AAA survey of 2,000 drivers age 16 and older, 32% said that they had driven while on the verge of falling asleep at some point in their lives, and 41% admitted to actually falling asleep at the wheel at some point in their lives. And that’s despite the opinion of 96% that it’s unacceptable to drive while drowsy! So why don’t we practice what we preach?


The 96% have it right. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), drowsiness is very similar in its effects to drunkenness. It causes slower reaction times, vision impairment, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information. In fact, NSF, which has joined AAA in publicizing the problem, says that being awake for more than 20 consecutive hours results in impairment equal to that caused by a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08%, which is the legal limit for driving in all states. And if you’ve undergone stress or slept poorly the night before, you don’t have to be awake for even that long to experience this level of impairment.

So why are we just now learning about this? As Kissinger put it, traffic safety experts have focused on "belts, booze and speed" and more recently on distractions by cell phones and other electronic devices. Also, statistics, he said, have downplayed the role of drowsiness in fatal crashes because it’s often difficult for investigators to determine if the cause of a crash was drowsiness, drunkenness, distraction or a combination of factors -- in other words, there’s no breathalyzer or blood test for drowsy driving. If a driver veers off the road and hits a tree, for instance, there’s often not any way to tell whether he fell asleep or instead was distracted when he tried to change the station on the radio.

As a result, US traffic statistics typically show that drowsiness is involved in only about 3.6% of fatal crashes, compared with more than 30% for alcohol. AAA has now recalculated the statistics by extrapolating data from accident reports and adjusting for unknown or missing data (like drowsiness). New calculations, Kissinger said, show that nearly 17% of fatal car crashes result from drowsy driving -- that’s on a par with distracted driving, which is thought to account for 16% of crashes. Plus, he added, 60% of people who "nod off" at the wheel do so when driving for less than one hour. "Drowsy driving doesn’t just occur on a long trip," he said. "It can also happen on a shorter trip, such as driving home after a date night with your significant other."


To prevent an accident caused by drowsiness, Kissinger urges us to...
  • Take a 30-minute break from driving every two hours or 100 miles to drink coffee or another caffeinated beverage. It takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream.
  • Sleep at least seven hours the night before a long trip.
  • If possible, travel with an alert and well-rested passenger who will help keep you awake.
  • Stay somewhere overnight instead of extending your drive time beyond the length of your typical day.
In addition, he said, besides the obvious case where you have trouble keeping your eyes open or your head up, you are too sleepy to drive when you...

  • Can’t remember how far you’ve traveled or what you’ve recently passed.
  • Find yourself tailgating or drifting out of your lane.
  • Daydream or have disconnected thoughts.
  • Often yawn or rub your eyes.
  • Miss signs or drive past your exit.
  • Veer off the road and hit the rumble strips on the shoulder.
  • Have to blast the radio and/or roll down the windows in an attempt to stay alert.
What can you say to friends who insist on driving drowsy? Try to talk them out of driving, and if possible, offer to drive them where they're going. If that fails, take away their keys, and don’t be afraid if they become angry. They’ll likely thank you later on, Kissinger said, especially after you mention the statistics on fatalities caused by drowsy driving. A look at the stats will tell them that you may have saved their lives. 

Be well,

Carole Jackson
Bottom Line’s Daily Health News

*This article appeared in its entirety in the Bottom Line’s Daily Health News newsletter

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Drinking and Driving: A Preventable Cause of Death

The Washington Post's Letter to the Editor on Monday featured findings from our 2011 Traffic Safety Culture Index relating to drinking and driving.  In that survey, we found that ‘Almost everyone said that drinking and driving was unacceptable, yet 14 percent said that within the year they had driven with an alcohol level probably near or above the legal limit’.

This means there are people out on our roads who find drinking and driving to be acceptable, and again shows the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ attitude that exists among drivers. With all the progress we have made in this country towards increasing awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence, it’s clear we have a long road ahead when it comes to changing people’s attitudes and behaviors.

It is my hope that every year we publish this index, we will see the percentage of people who put their lives and others at risk by drinking and driving decrease, and finally put a stop to this easily preventable cause of death on our roads.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Cognitive Decline: Not Just a Concern for Seniors

A new study published last week in the BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) showed that cognitive decline in skills such as memory and reasoning is being seen in people as young as 45.

Most of us are aware that as we get older, our cognitive skills and abilities begin to decline, and many of us struggle with tasks that up until a few years ago we performed with ease.  With the median age of Americans now at 37, this means a large percentage of the population is already, or soon will be affected by a decline in their cognitive skills. When thinking about this decline in terms of driving ability, it's a scary prospect!

When the Foundation partnered with Posit Science back in 2009 to develop a program called DriveSharp, it was originally envisioned as a tool  to help the “over 60” population re-train their brains to process information, react faster when driving and to extend their overall safe driving years. The program has shown to reduce the risk of car crash by up to 50%, improve ‘divided attention’ (the skill that enables you to track multiple moving objects at once) and expand ‘useful field of view’(the area over which you can extract information from  in a single glance).

Though the Foundation has mainly endorsed this program as a way to help seniors extend their safe driving years, a major clinical trial known as the IMPACT study, showed that every adult can benefit from Posit Science's Brain Fitness Program, regardless of age or other factors. As cognitive decline is now being seen in people as young as 45, this program can benefit users of all ages, and help everyone stay sharp on the road!

To learn more information about DriveSharp, visit

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It’s Not Too Late to Make One More Resolution

Let me start by wishing you a very happy and safe New Year. Let’s make 2012 a record year in lives saved on our roads. And, it starts with you. Each of us has a responsibility when we get behind the wheel as the driver and as a passenger.

As I reflect on 2011, I think about how often I have commented on driver behaviors regarding traffic safety. And, that is why it comes as no surprise that for the fourth consecutive year the Foundation’s annual Traffic Safety Culture Index finds that drivers continue to exhibit a “Do as I say, Not as I do” attitude behind the wheel.

While the Department of Transportation recently released updated fatality and injury data which indicates that 32,885 lives were lost in automobile crashes in 2010, fewer deaths on record than any time for the past 60 years, I feel that even one death on our road is too many.

Our survey confirms that Americans desire a greater level of safety than you now experience on our roads and are open to more government action to make it happen. Yet, from driving drowsy to not wearing a seatbelt, many are unwilling to change potentially deadly driving behaviors and candidly admit they are part of the problem. That is why I am challenging you to examine your driving habits and make a resolution to drive safer in 2012 and beyond.

In the upcoming weeks I will share key findings from this study along with other research projects the Foundation is conducting. However, invite you to learn exactly what drivers are saying in the 2011 Traffic Safety Culture Index.