Government - Get Some Sleep!
By Maggie Fox - Reuters
Health and Science Correspondent
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 (88 kph).
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 drivers.
"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 failing.
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 feel forgotten."
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."