Anyone who has seen "National Lampoon's Vacation" will recall the comedic scene where Chevy Chase falls asleep at the wheel, swerves off the highway and goes barreling through town before making a miraculously perfect stop in a hotel parking lot. But in real life, falling asleep at the wheel is no laughing matter.
There are more than 55,000 driving fatigue accidents in the U.S. each year, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These accidents kill about 1,550 people annually and cause some 71,000 injuries. While drunken driving accidents cause an estimated 32 percent of traffic fatalities each year, driving fatigue accidents may account for about 30 percent of traffic deaths.
Statistics show that both cars and trucks are involved in their share of driving fatigue accidents, but semi-truck drivers seem to be particularly at risk. Due to their long hours and packed schedules, big rig drivers are typically on the road for longer than eight hours at a time, which the National Sleep Foundation finds doubles their risk of a truck accident. SmartMotorist.com claims that around 40 percent of semi-truck accidents are caused by driving fatigue.
The issue has gained national attention with the recent highway crash in New Jersey that injured Tracy Morgan, a former "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock" cast member, and killed another comedian riding in Morgan's limo.
Authorities said the trucker apparently failed to slow for traffic ahead early Saturday in Cranbury Township and then swerved to avoid a crash. Instead, they said, his big rig smashed into the back of Morgan's chauffeured limo bus, killing comedian James McNair and injuring Morgan and three other people. The truck driver has been charged with death by auto and four counts of assault by auto.
Federal regulations permit truck drivers to work up to 14 hours a day, with a maximum of 11 hours behind the wheel. The other time is usually devoted to loading and unloading and paperwork. Drivers must have at least 10 hours off between work shifts to sleep.
"This is part of a systemic problem of having tired people driving at night and driving large trucks," Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the Associated Press.
But Dave Osiecki, vice president of the American Trucking Association, said no regulations can prevent a driver from making "bad choices."
That's why we need more safety inspections like the one conducted earlier this month by Vermont Commercial Vehicle Enforcement officers. Police issued almost $18,000 in fines after a three-day, around-the-clock inspection of commercial vehicles in Colchester on Interstate 89 and on U.S. Route 7. The June 3-5 operation involved checking safety elements on the vehicles, determining drivers' fitness for duty and verifying compliance with hazardous material transportation regulations.
Inspectors checked 3,217 commercial vehicles and inspected 223 of those vehicles during the operation. The state says the inspections resulted in 57 commercial vehicles being placed out of service as well as 14 commercial drivers.
What's most alarming is that the highest numbers of violations were for drivers violating hours of service regulations and vehicle brake violations. In other words, we have potentially over-tired truck drivers operating large commercial vehicles with poor brakes -- not a good combination on Vermont's winding mountain roads.
But while fatigue among truck drivers garners more media attention and police inspections -- probably because these huge rigs can cause more damage than an automobile -- over-tired car drivers can also pose a deadly risk to everyone else on the road. Sleepiness can impair drivers by causing slower reaction times, vision impairment, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In fact, studies show that being awake for more than 20 hours results in an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, the legal limit in all states. It is also possible to fall into a 3-4 second microsleep without realizing it.
The Foundation reports that about 60 percent of drivers admit to getting behind the wheel when they're over-tired. Right here in Windham County police report numerous accidents each year caused by driver fatigue.
The Foundation offers the following tips to prevent a fall-asleep crash: Get a good night's sleep before you hit the road; take a break every 100 miles or 2 hours; use the buddy system to share driving duties; find a safe place to take a 15- to 20-minute nap if you think you might fall asleep; avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep; and consume caffeine.
These simple steps could save countless lives -- including your own.