Patrol on watch for drowsy drivers

Troopers warn a lack of sleep can dangerously compromise motorists' driving skills

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

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National Survey of Distracted and Drowsy Driving Attitudes and Behaviors: 2002

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Traffic Safety Facts: Drowsy Driving

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Asleep at the Wheel: The Prevalence and Impact of Drowsy Driving

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Signs of sleepy driving

Difficulty focusing on the road, frequent blinking and/or heavy eyelids.

Daydreaming.

Trouble keeping your head up.

Drifting from your lane, swerving and tailgating.

Difficulty remembering the last few miles driven.

Missing exits or traffic signs.

Yawning repeatedly.

Feeling stressed, impatient or aggressive.

SOURCE: The National Sleep Foundation

The hectic holiday season can leave you short on sleep and lead to trouble on the road.

"We look at drowsy driving the same as though you were impaired by drugs or alcohol," said Trooper Will Finn. That's because lack of sleep affects you in the same way. You're reaction time is slower and ability to focus is compromised.

Washington State Patrol troopers are out looking for impaired drivers all year, but more people are on the road around the winter holidays.

Troopers look for vehicles that are weaving, drifting and dramatically changing their speed. They're not sure if they're dealing with a drunken driver or a drowsy driver until they talk with them. The statistics vary on how many people drive drowsy, with anywhere from 4 to 50 percent of people admitting to getting behind the wheel when they haven't had enough sleep.

Finn said it's often under reported as a contributing factor in a crash.

"It happens more than we know, and we don't get the real story," Finn said. "People don't always readily admit. We get a lot of, 'I don't know what happened.'"

There were 12 fatal crashes on Washington highways involving drowsy drivers in 2012, according to WSP. Sleep-related crashes make up a disproportionate amount of rear-end and head-on collisions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Most people consider drowsy driving unacceptable, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, but fewer people consider it a serious threat. The percentage who did dropped from 71 percent in 2009 to 46 percent in 2012.

There is no test for sleepiness like there is for intoxication. Instead, troopers explain the dangers of drowsy driving and direct them to pull over to a safe location and rest for an hour or two. They may direct them to a hotel. If they have a licensed passenger, they could take over driving duties.

All motorists have their practices they believe keep them awake. Among them is blasting the radio, rolling down a window and drinking caffeine.

"Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn't," Finn said.

Motorists can get cited for second-degree negligent driving. If they know they're tired or took medications they know might make them sleepy, and got behind the wheel anyway, that's negligent disregard for the safety of others, Finn explained.

Even if you aren't sleepy, driving for long stretches can be monotonous and make you nod off.

He advises people to give themselves plenty of time to get to their destination and take breaks on long trips.