- WASHINGTON - The dental student winked, blinked and yawned as he tried to
stay awake. His car weaved across the center line. Finally, he succumbed,
and for 12 long seconds he was sound asleep " at 55 miles an hour
- The student, a sleep study volunteer
whose actions were caught on videotape, luckily woke up and regained control
of his car before anything bad happened.
- The dramatic footage is being used by
the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National
Institutes of Health (NIH) in a new campaign warning students, shift workers
and other sleep-deprived people about the dangers of driving while sleepy.
- "As our culture moves to a 24-hour,
seven-day-a-week operation and the number of shift workers continues to
climb, the problem could worsen if actions are not taken now to reverse
the trend of drowsy driving," Mortimer Downey, the deputy U.S. Transportation
Secretary, told a news conference.
- The NHTSA and the National Centre on
Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR) at the NIH estimate that 1,550 people
were killed and 40,000 were injured every year in accidents caused by sleepy
- "The trend to a 24-hour society
has led to a tremendous problem with sleepiness behind the wheel,"
NHTSA Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez said.
- The video provides clear evidence.
- The NHTSA had identified several people
at high risk of being sleepy behind the wheel, including the young student
who was working and studying long hours. They agreed to have their cars
fitted with special cameras.
- In the footage, which was not staged,
the unnamed volunteer was seen struggling to stay awake but ultimately
- Martinez also admitted falling asleep
at the wheel while a medical student working long hours and often taking
long road trips. He was never hurt, but Lil Militello, a registered nurse
at the Kalieda Health System in Buffalo, New York, was.
- Driving home after her 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
overnight shift, she went into a ditch one day. It took emergency workers
an hour to cut her out of the wreckage of her car.
- "What's scary about this is that
I am a nurse. I know the risk. It just never occurred to me that it would
affect me," she told the news conference.
- Her hospital has initiated the kind of
programme that the government wants to encourage all over the country.
- "We now have a buddy system,"
she said. Colleagues look out for signs of sleepiness in one another and
take their car keys away if they feel it is necessary. "We drive you
home and you can get your car later," Militello said.
- They also swap babysitting so each nurse
can get a solid block of sleep.
- The NHTSA and NIH also are urging employers
to increase the lighting at work and take other measures to help keep shift
workers from becoming sleepy. Martinez said cost-cutting measures were
putting employees at risk.
- "They've cut back on environment
and lighting services for them, which is exactly what they need,"
he said. "More than 15 million workers work in shifts. These workers
- Under the new program employers will
be urged to counsel shift workers on how to get sleep at home, by blocking
out noise, exercising and making sure family members know to leave them
alone and let them sleep.
- The agencies are looking into possible
safety mechanisms to install in cars, such as infrared light detectors
that can measure how wide-open the driver's eye is, and perhaps sound an
alarm if the lids start to droop.
- They will also run studies to see if
rumble strips that warn drivers their cars are off the road might help.
- In the end, there is only one cure for
being drowsy behind the wheel, and that is sleep, said Dr. James Kiley,
director of the NCSDR.
- "The longer that you are awake,"
he said, "the sleepier you are going to be and the more impaired you
are going to be in any task."