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The SleepCare Center at RWJ Hamilton

Sleep Deprivation Affects Safe Driving


Sleep Deprivation

  • According to scientific studies, most people need 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Normal sleep occurs in repeated cycles lasting from 90 to 110 minutes.
  • There are different stages of sleep:
    1. First you drift into light sleep and then gradually fall into deeper stages until you are dreaming.
    2. During a sleep cycle, you may sleep lighter or deeper but there is usually a dream stage.
    3. Dream sleep is called rapid eye movement or REM sleep.
    4. REM sleep is usually about 20 to 25% of your total sleep time and is the most valuable allowing you to wake feeling refreshed.
  • A good nights sleep is important for your overall health.
  • Sleep deprivation is the loss or absence of necessary sleep.
  • If you are chronically sleep deprived, the effects can be harmful not only to your health but also to driving safety.
  • Eventually you must face your sleep debt and catch up.
  • For those who work long hours, shift work or have many demands on their time, it may mean catching up on the weekend or days off work.

Sleep deprivation affects driving in the following ways:

  • Poor concentration
  • Slower reaction time
  • Increased irritability
  • Impaired judgment
  • Higher accident risk
  • Risk of falling asleep at the wheel

Signs of fatigue or sleep deprivation:

  • Riding the shoulder or white line
  • Poor recall of distance traveled or passing milestones
  • Slower reflexes / reaction time
  • Becoming drowsy or "hypnotized" by the road
  • Falling asleep at the wheel

According to studies, most accidents occur either in the afternoon between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. or early morning between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Each person has an internal daily time clock called circadian rhythm. Some people are more alert early in the day and fade towards evening (early birds) while others gain energy and alertness later in the day and evening (night owls). Recognize your internal rhythm to help you be more aware of your driving during these times of higher risk.

Results of Driving Long Hours:

  • Tiredness / Fatigue
  • Unclear thinking
  • Lack of sleep
  • Increased accident risk
  • Higher stress level
  • Irritability

Ask Yourself the Following Questions for Driving Fitness:

  • Are you drowsy?
  • Do you feel alert?
  • Can you concentrate?

Falling asleep at the wheel can happen without warning. Other factors play a part in your driving safety such as personal issues, equipment problems and weather. Sleep-related accidents are hard to determine and few studies are available. These accidents are under reported and drivers are reluctant to admit they fell asleep at the wheel. Sleepy drivers are at much higher risk for accidents.

Sleep Apnea and Driving

  • For those with untreated sleep apnea, driving is more hazardous due to increased daytime sleepiness and risk of falling asleep at the wheel.
  • Some studies compare driving with untreated sleep apnea to driving drunk.
  • Individuals with OSA are seven times more likely to have car accidents.
  • Use of CPAP decreases traffic accident risk to normal.

Maggie's Law and Driving Safety

  • New Jersey is the only state that passed a law, which turns drowsy driving into a criminal offence.
  • Under the new law, a sleep deprived driver who causes an accident, after being awake for more than 24 hours, can be convicted of vehicular homicide.
  • Maggie's Law is intended to address the dangers of drowsy driving.
  • Several scientific studies have demonstrated that people who have been awake for 24 hours are impaired to the same level as someone with a blood-alcohol level of .10 percent, which is recognized as legally drunk in all states.
  • The 24 million Americans who work in extended hours jobs outside the hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. will be particularly affected by Maggie's Law.
  • Many extended hours employees routinely stay awake for 24 hours on their first nightshift of the workweek.
  • Medical professionals and other emergency services personnel are often required to remain on-duty for 24-hour shifts.
For more information or to schedule the sleep study, please call the toll free number 1-866-SLEEP40 (1-866-753-3740).


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