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Opening eyes to danger on the road

Tom Cherveny | Tribune Many of the fatal accidents associated with drowsy driving occur on rural, two lane roads during the night hours. 1 / 3
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Don't get behind the wheel if you haven't had a good night's sleep, warns Jarad Ripperger, director of the Sleep Center of Willmar. Drowsy driving is responsible for 12 percent of the fatalities on the nation's roadways, he told attendees at a recent Towards Zero Deaths conference sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. 2 / 3
Tom Cherveny / Tribune Don't get behind the wheel if you haven't had a good night's sleep, warns Jarad Ripperger, director of the Sleep Center of Willmar. Drowsy driving is responsible for 12 percent of the fatalities on the nation's roadways, he told attendees at a recent Towards Zero Deaths conference sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation.3 / 3

WILLMAR — Sgt. Jesse Grabow of the Minnesota State Patrol watched the vehicle in front of him on the freeway weave from the right lane to the left lane and onto the shoulder before the driver snapped the wheel and nearly overcorrected.

Another drunk driver? No, it was another drowsy driver. Drowsy driving is very possibly one of the most underreported causes of accidents on the roads, said Grabow, a 19-year veteran of the Patrol.

Roughly 12 to 13 percent of fatal accidents in the country are related to drowsy driving, according to research cited by Jarad Ripperger, director of the Sleep Center of Willmar.

He classifies it as part of the four dangerous "D's'' of the road: Drunk, drugged, distracted and drowsy driving.

Ripperger has 12 years of experience in sleep medicine. Last month, he spoke on the dangers of drowsy driving to attendees at the Toward Zero Deaths traffic safety conference for Southwest Minnesota.

The number one thing to consider, Ripperger said in a recent interview with the West Central Tribune, is that many people just don't get enough sleep. With busy lifestyles, fewer people get the seven to nine hours of sleep needed. We put ourselves into a sleep debt, and the problem only compounds itself, Ripperger said. "You never get that sleep back.''

He said that one well-known study demonstrated that after 18 to 20 hours without sleep, you have the cognitive abilities of someone who has an 0.08 percent blood alcohol level — someone legally drunk.

Driving is often a repetitive and tedious cognitive task, where mental alertness is challenged, he said.

He referenced a study by the American Automobile Association that hooked drivers to EEG monitors. It found that tired drivers will nod off for one to three seconds of micro-sleep behind the wheel. At a highway speed of 55 miles per hour, they covered the length of a football field during that brief nod, Ripperger said.

What to do about it? Make sure you get your sleep, Ripperger said. Sleep is a performance enhancer. A 29-minute nap has been shown to increase mental performance by 34 percent, he said.

It's common for new patients at the Sleep Center to report that they have experienced drowsy moments behind the wheel. Ripperger needs only to look through the questionnaires that all of his new patients complete. One respondent answered that he could recall eight to 10 such incidents in the prior month.

The Sleep Center of Willmar treats people with any of more than 60 different sleep disorders. Ripperger said that all can be treated successfully.

But he also warned that everyone is vulnerable to driving drowsy if they do not set aside the time for quality sleep. One survey of drivers found that 41 percent of American drivers acknowledged driving drowsy at some point.

A person's level of alertness varies during the roughly 24-hour circadian rhythm, he said. People are usually at their low point of brain activity in the middle of the night, and there is a little dip in the mid-afternoon. Shift workers and people making long, monotonous drives during the night on rural roadways are more vulnerable to becoming drowsy, he said.

Having a passenger helps. Blaring music not so much.

Caffeine can give you a short boost, but it's not going to take you a long way. Ripperger said one study of drivers who are believed to have died as the result of falling asleep behind the wheel discovered that many had very high levels of caffeine.

It told investigators two things. The caffeine didn't help, and the fact that they had been consuming lots of caffeine suggested the drivers knew they were tired, Ripperger said.

All drivers should make sure they have had enough sleep before they get behind the wheel, Sgt. Grabow said. He added that every driver should be defensive, and aware that others on the road could be drowsy. The 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are the most dangerous on the roads. Troopers will respond to more serious and fatal accidents during this period than any other, he said.

"A fatigued, tired driver can be just as dangerous as an impaired or distracted driver,'' Grabow said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335
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