Asleep at the Wheel

Author: Paul D. Hux, Petersburg Personal Injury Lawyer

In April of this year, thirty-two-year-old Jessica Marciano was on vacation in Crockett County, Texas. Driving at night, she fell asleep at the wheel, her pickup truck drifted to the center median, then flipped over, partially blocking the eastbound lane of traffic.  Marciano freed herself from the truck and climbed on top of it to wait for help. But a man driving a tractor trailer hauling a disabled vehicle did not see her. He hit her, killing her instantly, then swerved into an oncoming line of traffic hitting one vehicle and killing its three occupants.  

In Charlotte, North Carolina, also this year, twenty-three year old Trungquan Le Tran fell asleep while driving, crossed the double yellow line and hit fifty-six year old Debra Sue Oehmke’s vehicle head on. Oehmke was taken to a nearby medical center where she was pronounced dead. Tran was charged with misdemeanor death by motor vehicle.

These are but two examples of the hundreds of needless tragedies caused by a few minutes of loss of consciousness while driving. The statistics are frightening for anyone on the road.

The AAA Foundation, an organization that exists to improve traffic safety, recently provided research showing that drivers who miss even one or two hours of the recommended seven hours of sleep in a twenty-four hour period almost double their risk for a crash. “You cannot miss sleep and still expect to be able to safely function behind the wheel,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation. “Our new research shows that a driver who has slept for less than five hours has a crash risk comparable to someone driving drunk.”

While 97 percent of drivers told the AAA Foundation they view drowsy driving as a completely unacceptable behavior and a serious threat to their safety, nearly one in three admit that at least once in the past month they drove when they were so tired they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.

There are other organizations that reinforce these statistics.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses. These figures may be underestimated, since it is difficult to attribute crashes to sleepiness.

Road Hypnosis while not the same as falling asleep can be just as dangerous. According to doctors, a person who has lapsed into highway hypnosis is experiencing slowed brain activity. In a trance-like state, different parts of the brain aren't communicating with one another as frequently as when the person is fully conscious. Sailors who have to stare at the horizon on the ocean for long periods are told to move their eyes frequently, changing their direction up, down and sideways. Changing your eye focus is key to stopping road hypnosis.

Tips to keep you awake while driving:

  • Do not eat large, carbohydrate rich meals before driving.
  • Drive during the daytime or the times you are normally awake.
  • On long drives, stop briefly every two hours to get out and stretch. This helps your back and legs, too.
  • Have a travel buddy to share the driving, or at least to make sure you are awake.
  • Play music that keeps you pumped up.
  • The right stimulating book on tape can keep you entertained and alert.
  • Obviously, stay away from medications and/or recreational drugs that cause sleepiness.
  • Roll down the windows for some fresh air, or turn the AC up high.
  • When you can’t pull over and are falling asleep, call someone to talk with to keep you alert until you can safely stop.
  • Keep your body moving; neck and arm stretches and use of cruise control to rest one leg are helpful.
  • Do eye exercises to stop road hypnosis. Move your eyes up, down and sideways but always watch the road. Eye drops or cold compresses will help prevent eye strain and dry eyes on long drives.

When you pull over to take a rest, be careful: Stopping on the side of a highway is not a good idea unless absolutely necessary. Other drivers may not see you, especially after dark. Numerous police cars on the side of the road (even with flashing lights on) are hit by drivers every year. Get off the nearest exit. Rest stops may be OK during the day but at night you are safer stopping in a busy, well lighted area such as an open all-night diner or fast food restaurant, gas station or hotel parking lot.  It goes without saying that you should charge your cell phone and lock your doors before napping. It is dangerous to sleep in your car with the engine running due to the possibility of carbon monoxide building up inside the car. If you must run the engine, leave the car windows open just an inch or two. Better yet, since safety is your best investment, get a hotel room!

Being late, missing a day of vacation, paying for a night’s stay at a hotel might seem inconvenient, but when compared to the cost of a fatal car accident, they are well worth the investment.

Sidebar:

Liability: What happens if you do fall asleep and cause an accident? The standard of liability in a car accident will depend on whether it is a civil or criminal case. A driver who allegedly falls asleep could be charged with reckless driving or even negligent homicide if someone is killed in the accident. Drowsy driving incidents have resulted in jail sentences for the driver and multi-million dollar settlements have been awarded to families of crash victims as a result of lawsuits filed against individuals as well as businesses whose employees were involved in drowsy driving crashes.


[1] http://drowsydriving.org/

[2] https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/national-sleep-foundation%E2%80%99s-drowsy-driving-prevention-week-provides-tips-prevent-one-six

[3] Source: https://www.aaafoundation.org/sites/default/files/AcuteSleepDeprivationCrashRisk.pdf (21% of all automobile fatalities involve a driver who has fallen asleep.)

[4] Source: http://gadling.com/2012/08/31/highway-hypnosis-and-how-to-avoid-it/

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