Public needs to wake up when it comes to drowsy driving, many say

Oct 20 2012 - 10:42pm

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Driving drowsy is just as dangerous as drunken driving, officials say. (Image courtesy of Zero Fatalities/Utah Public Safety Department)
Driving drowsy is just as dangerous as drunken driving, officials say. (Image courtesy of Zero Fatalities/Utah Public Safety Department)

Ronnie Lynn Thompson would have been 30 years old this year.

Instead, he died 14 years ago when the driver of the car he was in fell asleep and crashed into oncoming traffic, said Lorri Henseler.

Since her son's death, she has been on a crusade to make people more aware of the dangers of drowsy driving.

"I'm going to talk about it until I'm blue in the face, to let the public know how deadly it is," said the West Valley City resident who founded the nonprofit group No Drowsy Driving, or NODD.

The National Sleep Foundation is sponsoring Drowsy Driving Prevention Week from Nov. 12-18.

According to a report by the foundation, more than half of those who fall asleep at the wheel are 25 years or younger.

A poll by the foundation shows that more than half of all teenagers drove drowsy within the year and 15 percent of all 10th-graders to 12th-graders said they drive drowsy at least once a week.

Drowsy drivers are on all roads, not just highways, and not all fatigue occurs at night, said Davis County Sheriff's Sgt. Jennifer Daley.

"We've pulled people over who have absolutely fell asleep at 2 in the afternoon," she said.

"Drowsy driving is as bad, if not worse, than drunk driving."

Staying awake for more than 20 hours can cause an impairment that equals a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08, the legal limit in Utah and other states, the National Sleep Foundation says studies show.

Drowsy drivers can be found on any street during commuting hours, Daley said.

Information about drowsy drivers and crashes is not reliable because most people won't admit to falling asleep while driving, officials said.

In Utah last year, drowsy driving played a role in at least seven crashes that resulted in a fatality, according to the Zero Fatalities website, www.zerofatalities.com.

Driver's education teachers across Utah said they do talk about drowsy driving with their students.

It's part of the Zero Fatalities program presented in schools by the Utah Public Safety Department.

Clearfield High School football coach Billy Pluim said he talks about his own experience to show students no one is immune to drowsy driving.

He said he was driving to the University of Utah to attend classes when "I fell asleep at the wheel."

"Apparently, I crossed all three lanes of traffic and was going down the median at 65 mph when I woke up," Pluim said.

"It scared the crap out of me. I was lucky, really lucky, no one was hurt or killed."

Pluim said his students can relate to drowsy driving because they all know someone who has fallen asleep.

Drowsy driving is always among the top three reasons young drivers get into accidents, said Dave Bell, Bonneville High School's driver's ed teacher.

He said he tells students: "When you go to college and you finish that last exam, get some rest before you drive back home."

Energy drinks, coffee and caffeinated soda will not revive someone who's tired.

Recently, Bell and his wife were coming back from Bear Lake at 10 p.m. They had gone just a few miles when Bell decided it would be best to go back, rest and drive home early the following morning.

"When you fight drowsy driving, you might as well be drunk," he said.

If a driver starts feeling drowsy, the best thing to do is pull over in a safe area and take a quick nap, said Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Todd Johnson.

When officers see someone weaving in and out of lanes, they usually suspect the driver is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he said.

But after talking with the driver, officers usually can tell if the person is just drowsy.

Utah doesn't have any laws that make it illegal to drive drowsy, but officers can issue citations for unsafe lane travel, following too closely or other traffic violations.

Johnson said for those who want to go on long drives, having another driver available to switch off is always a good idea.

Stopping frequently to move around and get some rest is also a good tip, he said.

Click here for more information about drowsy driving.

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