Driving drowsy: Just not smart

FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. -- After a long day at work, you are too excited to wait an additional day before starting your trip to go see your family. It's your leave, so why should you waste time sitting at home? You load up the car, fill up with gas and hit the road; the drive's only a few hours. The drive begins as planned -- you make it to the highway, bring your car up to speed and then hit cruise control.

During the drive, you feel a little drowsy so you sip on an energy drink and press on. Next thing you know, you're waking up, but not in your bed. You're still behind the wheel. You watch yourself drive through a turn and into a field, the car spinning and grass flying up all around, before the car comes to a stop just shy of a 15-foot drop into a creek.

After I stopped screaming and pried my white knuckles off the steering wheel, I assessed the situation.

This was my story in 2001 as a young senior airman, looking forward to weekend drives from Oklahoma to East Texas to see my girlfriend. Luckily, I was able to walk away with nothing but a bruised ego and a banged up car. My passenger was also unhurt. Many people aren't so lucky.

According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driving drowsy is just as dangerous as drinking and driving. Each year, roughly 100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue. This works out to be an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in monetary losses.

Those numbers sound staggering but most safety officials claim they may be low because it is difficult to attribute automobile accidents to sleepiness.

When an individual has been awake for at least 18 hours, research shows that it impairs the body equal to a blood alcohol concentration of .08, and .10 after 24 hours; in the U.S., .08 is considered legally drunk.

As NCOs, it's important to pay special attention to our younger Airmen. According to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Web site, young people 16 to 29 years of age are the most likely to be involved in crashes caused by the driver falling asleep.

We all need to make sure that the people around us are aware of the dangers of driving drowsy, and take proper precautions. It's extremely vital to ensure our Airmen, as well as ourselves, have the proper amount of rest before starting any drive, and if we feel sleepy, to do the right thing and pull over. Get some fresh air, stretch or take a nap. Do whatever it takes to make sure we are safe on the road.

Take it from me, driving drowsy is just not worth it.

(Information from www.chop.edu and www.nhtsa.dot.gov was used in this story.)