Winter Road Rules

Let's face it: We can't close the door on winter. Even though walking up a sandy beach to climb into a top-down convertible is far preferable to stumbling down a snow-covered sidewalk, only to scramble into a frigid car that may or may not start. When you get right down to the nub, winter driving is darn inconvenient and, at its worst, it can be supremely hazardous. But that doesn't mean you have to park your chariot in the garage and hibernate all winter, as tempting as that may sound.

A little bit of preparation and a big pinch of patience can make winter driving a reasonably painless experience. First, see to it that your vehicle is prepared for the long winter's night. Then, determine if your skills and psyche are equally well tuned to the task. Herewith are suggestions for you and your vehicle that might make the difference between a joyous winter season and a cold winter's nap.

Prepare Your Vehicle

Your brakes, windshield wipers, defroster, heater and exhaust system should be in top condition. These systems have a harder workout in the winter than they do in the summer. The condition of your windshield wipers and the performance of your defroster are crucial to your vision and your safety.

Check your cooling system anti-freeze and add anti-freeze solvent to your windshield washer reservoir to prevent icing. The windshield washer is an often neglected but vital piece of safety equipment. If you run out of fluid or if your system freezes, it can severely injure your ability to see.

Check your tires. Make sure they are properly inflated and the tread isn't worn out. Many vehicles are equipped with so-called "all-season" tires, and these tires perform well in most weather conditions. For reliable traction in snow, however, specially designed snow tires are best.

Consider carrying traction devices, such as snow chains or snow treads. Check that they are the proper size, in working order and, equally important, that you know how to install them. Pack gloves and a flashlight to aid installation, which usually occurs in the worst weather imaginable. Traction devices must be installed on the drive wheels, so find out if your vehicle is front- or rear-wheel drive. Note, too, that even some sport utility vehicles these days are primarily front-wheel drive. They might benefit from having chains or other devices installed on the front wheels.

Carry an ice scraper or commercial deicer; a broom for brushing snow off your car; a shovel to free your car from drifts; sand, kitty litter or carpet scraps for traction if your wheels should become mired in snow; and a towel to wipe your sweat and clean your hands.

Carry water, food, reflective "space" blankets and extra clothing. While these preparations might make you feel like you're a member of the Donner party, you'll be relieved to have them in case of a lengthy delay at a snow-closed highway.

Keep plenty of fuel in your gas tank. Though you don't need to top off at every opportunity, you don't want to be stuck in bad weather with a short supply of fuel. Remember, it might be necessary to change routes during a bad storm or you might be caught in a traffic delay.

Keep your vehicle's windshield and windows clean. Many winter accidents are caused by limited visibility, so use your windshield wipers and windshield wiper solvent generously. Don't hesitate to stop at a safe turnout to use a snow brush or scraper to gain better visibility in all directions. And use the car defroster and a clean cloth to keep the windows fog free.

Put an extra car key in your wallet or pocket. A number of motorists have locked themselves out when applying traction devices.

Prepare Yourself

Get an early start to allow enough time to complete your trip. Remember that poor winter weather necessitates a slower rate of travel, so trips that take an hour in the summer might take twice to three times as long. Rushing to reach a destination in bad weather conditions is a prescription for disaster.

Drive defensively. Speeds that are appropriate on dry, well-lit highways can be dangerous in poor weather conditions. Snow and ice on the pavement will drastically increase the distance it takes for your vehicle to stop, so leave more distance between your vehicle and the vehicle ahead.

Be careful on bridges and in areas of sun and shade. Overpasses and shady spots can be icy when other portions of the pavement are not, so be particularly wary when crossing a bridge or driving in area of intermittent sun and shade. Sudden stops and quick direction changes on slick and icy surfaces can be especially dangerous.

Be observant. Visibility is often limited in winter by weather conditions. You may encounter slow-moving vehicles, including snow-moving equipment. Stay alert for the flashing lights that might warn you of such equipment on the roadway.

If you are stalled or stranded, stay with your vehicle and try to conserve fuel while maintaining warm. Be alert to any possible carbon monoxide problems within your car; recognizing that carbon monoxide is an odorless, invisible gas that can creep into your vehicle through a leaky exhaust system. When stranded, make certain that the outlet of your exhaust pipe remains unimpeded by snow and ice.

Obey highway signs indicating chains are required or road closures. You can be cited by authorities and fined, or even jailed if you don't. By all means, don't venture into areas where roads have been closed. they're closed for a reason, and that reason is safety.

Drive slowly when equipped with chains or other traction devices. The speed limit when chains are required is usually 25 or 30 miles an hour.

Steer clear of danger when installing safety devices. When you put on traction equipment, wait until you can pull completely off the roadway to the right. Do not stop in a traffic lane.

Having lived in Illinois and California, Nerad is a veteran of winter and mountain driving. Thanks to the California Department of Transportation for its contributions to this article.

Road Rage

The anecdotal evidence seems overwhelming. Violence on the streets is pandemic. Road rage is rampant. The next driver you see may be wielding a Glock or a Thompson sub-machine gun. Run for your lives!

Of course, the individual stories presented to us are compelling. Take the incident that occurred on I-95 in Virginia. There, one driver cruising along in the left (fast) lane was apparently slow to move out of the way when another driver came barreling up on him, flashing his lights. Riled up by the inconvenience, the impatient trailing driver fired two shots from a .45-caliber handgun into the slower vehicle, and one of the big slugs ended up in the slower driver's leg.

Even more tragic was an incident that occurred near Washington, D.C. One driver apparently became upset when cut off by a second driver's lane change, and the conflict grew into a high-speed argument that extended for several miles on George Washington Parkway until both cars catapulted across a divider and into oncoming traffic. One of the original combatants was killed as were two innocent drivers who just happened to be coming the other way.

In Colorado, a middle-aged driver miffed that another driver was tailgating him, signaled for the driver to pull over. When the two men left their cars, an argument soon escalated into a shooting, and the erstwhile tailgater ended up dead by the side of the road.

Of course, some of the confrontations attributed to road rage seem almost ludicrous. In Salt Lake City, an elderly driver became so upset that another driver had honked at him that he followed the honking driver, threw a prescription bottle at him and finally slammed into his legs with his car. In Maryland a fender-bender led to violence when a former state legislator swiped at a pregnant woman and knocked off her glasses when she confronted him about his role in the accident.

Incidents like these - ludicrous, macabre or just plain frightening - are reported day-after-day by the media. Shots are exchanged on Los Angeles freeways. Fights erupt between motorists after a crash in Illinois. Farmer on tractor fires b-bs at speeding drivers in Nebraska. Obviously, there are all the earmarks of a problem here. But revisionists are now asking the important question, is the problem real?

Certainly, many people think it is. According to a poll conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a substantial minority of the public (30 percent) thought drivers in their area were driving a lot or somewhat more aggressively today than a year ago. Further, the study found that some two-thirds of respondents said unsafe driving actions by other people are major threats to themselves and their families.

According to a study released in the late 90s by the American Automobile Association, the rate of "aggressive driving" incidents rose by 51 percent since the decade began. In this instance, "aggressive driving" was defined as events in which an angry or impatient driver tried to kill or injure another driver after a traffic dispute. Life-threatening incidents are certainly worthy of our attention, especially when 37 percent of the offenders used firearms against other drivers, an additional 28 percent used other weapons, and 35 percent used their cars.

With information like this floating around, it is natural to assume that aggressive driving or "road rage" is an important auto safety issue. In fact, the term "road rage" rolls off the tongue so easily that it has spawned related terms like "air rage" and "office rage." Soon, it appears, we will also be regaled with accounts of "supermarket rage," "bowling alley rage," and "public bathroom rage." But how real is road rage as a threat to you and your family?

Not very real at all, when you take a look at the facts and overlook the hype. Consider this: of the 300,000 or so Americans that were killed in traffic in the last decade, the AAA study found that fewer than 250 of those deaths were directly attributable to enraged drivers. Overseas, where the phenomenon of road rage has received serious publicity and serious study, it appears there is a similar relationship between overall traffic fatalities and those attributable to "road rage." In its paper on Driver Aggression, the Road Safety Unit of The (British) Automobile Association pointed out that "On the assumption that six cases of death resulting from road rage conflicts occurred in 1996, it can be postulated that, as members of the U.K. population, whilst we typically face a one in 15,686 chance of being killed in a road accident, the probability of dying as a result of road rage is closer to one in 9.5 million." Similar odds could be offered on being hit by a lightning bolt, winning the New Jersey lottery or finding a cab in Manhattan when it's raining.

Although "road rage" gets headlines, overall trends for car accidents and traffic deaths have been moving downward for several decades. Even if one considers all speed-related fatalities as a symptom of road rage (and that's a big stretch of logic at best), the statistics don't support the notion that road rage is a huge safety problem. Speed-related fatalities increased slightly from 12,509 in 1998 to 12,628 in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but that tiny increase is hardly enough to postulate that road rage is a giant issue. Further, most experts would shake their heads at the notion that in most instances traveling faster than the speed limit represents road rage in the first place.

In fact, one has to ask, what constitutes "road rage" anyway? Is it horn-honking or an exchange of gunshots? It is flipping "the bird" or punches thrown? Is it following another vehicle too closely or is it trying to force another vehicle off the road?

While some experts might claim all these behaviors demonstrate road rage, others say a strong distinction should be drawn between motorists losing their temper and motorists who are likely to become murderous. According to a recent article by Barry J. Elliott, "In general, the consensus view from amongst road safety experts around the world is that the term "road rage" ought to be limited to intentional acts of violence and assault, and that the issue is a criminal matter, not a road safety concern." In short, a line should be drawn between the driver who is cut off and waves a single finger at the offending party and a driver who has the psychological makeup to do bodily harm.

As a source quoted by Elliott noted, "Many of the more minor incidents such as use of the car horn, come more from driver frustration than anything that comes close to a "rage," and it would be unimaginable for most of these drivers to take this frustration further and engage in more violent or intimidatory acts. Linking these two very different behaviors under one umbrella only promotes the idea that the frustration that many drivers feel could easily become more violent."

There is little doubt that many drivers feel more frustrated these days. After all, in most areas traffic is moving more slowly than ever, so time spent in vehicles getting nowhere is growing. In our fast-paced environment, simply being forced to stand still for a few minutes can make many individuals angry. That does not mean, however, that most or even a large minority of these individuals is likely to do anything more than sneer, shout, honk or gesture at another driver who engenders their ire. While being the recipient of such behavior isn't pleasant, it's a far cry from being a victim of bodily harm.

Fact is, most drivers who get angry behind the wheel are not going to haul out a bazooka and send a shell rocketing into your gas tank. Further, those who commit violent acts connected with the driving experience are relatively easy to profile. A survey conducted by NHTSA confirmed that age and gender are two important factors associated with of unsafe driving. Men are more likely than women to engage in "unsafe driving" or at least admit that they do, and age was an even greater differentiating factor. The study found proportion of drivers who engage in virtually all of the unsafe driving actions declined as age increased.

A New Zealand study quoted by Elliott was even more specific. Both victims and, even more particularly, perpetrators of "road rage" violence had been involved in other sorts of anti-social behavior including drunk driving, driving without a license, fighting, theft, burglary, assault with a weapon, assault, drug and firearm offenses. A study from the United Kingdom identified those who might engage in roadside violence as those who were affected by their moods to a much larger extent than drivers as a whole. So if you want the full profile, look out for moody young males who have a previous history of scrapes with the law. Of course, that's good advice in or out of your car.

So while most people who show disdain for your ability behind the wheel probably won't kill you, it does seem that boors travel amongst us every day. Perhaps, as Leon James, a University of Hawaii professor who testified before Congress on the subject, said "what's on the increase is the sheer amount of habitual road rage we see today. I define habitual road rage as a persistent state of hostility behind the wheel, demonstrated by acts of aggression on a continuum of violence, and justified by righteous indignation. Driving and habitual road rage have become virtually inseparable."

James claims that we are born to road rage, because as youngsters we see our parents vent their spleens inappropriately behind the wheel. As he testified before Congress, "Road rage is a habit acquired in childhood. Children are reared in a car culture that condones irate expressions as part of the normal wear and tear of driving. Once they enter a car, children notice that all of a sudden the rules have changed: It's okay to be mad, very upset, out of control, and use bad language that's ordinarily not allowed. By the time they get their driver's license, adolescents have assimilated years of road rage. The road rage habit can be unlearned, but it takes more than conventional Driver's Ed."

Perhaps so. Perhaps, in the broadest definition, road rage is just another symptom of the fact that, as Joseph Conrad pointed out in Heart of Darkness, civilization is a very thin veneer over a caldron of venal, selfish and wicked human impulses. And if we're truthful, each of us has to admit we share a few of those baser impulses ourselves. But that doesn't mean most of us are likely to force a busload of nuns off an embankment if the driver of their vehicle cuts us off.

-- Jack Nerad

The host of the syndicated radio show "America on the Road," Nerad has to admit that sometimes he wishes his car's horn button were actually connected to a "disintegrator ray."

Auto Theft

Here today. Gone today. To a car thief, time is money, and we mean big money. The old saying is that crime doesn't pay, but that doesn't seem the case when it comes to car theft. It's a big business. So big, in fact, that if it were legalized and incorporated, it would rank 56th among Fortune 500 companies.

Another common motivation to steal a car is simply to sell it again, in the same way that any stolen property is "fenced" illegally. Often thieves will hustle the vehicle across state lines where its identification numbers are altered to match forged or fraudulently obtained titles and registration papers. Another common ploy is to ship the stolen vehicles overseas. Often a vehicle stolen in a port city will be in a shipping container ready to be sent overseas within hours of its theft.

A frightening new trend in car theft is often referred to as "cars for crack." The typical scenario goes like this: a drug buyer will lend his vehicle to a crack dealer in exchange for drugs. The drug dealer, in turn, uses the vehicle to transport drugs or commit other crimes with no threat of having to forfeit his own car if he's caught. If the drug dealer does not return the car or the car is seized by law enforcement, the drug buyer who lent the car reports the car as stolen to his insurance company. The insurance company then settles the claim, putting more potential drug money in the hands of the buyer. If the car is returned, the process simply repeats itself.

Another type of car theft was spawned by the increasing prevalence of automobile leasing. In this scenario, usually referred to as a "give up," the owner or lessee is actually quite willing to have the vehicle stolen. Why? Because it typically involves either leased vehicles with excess mileage whose turn-in costs are high or purchased vehicles whose owners no longer desire to make the monthly payments.

In these instances the owner actually arranges to have the vehicle stolen or simply abandons it in a known high-crime area. In some cases, the owner/lessee may simply hide the vehicle and report it stolen to the police and insurance company. Sometimes, to ensure that the car is a write-off, the owner may actually burn the vehicle to make certain it is a total loss. These cases begin as car theft, but also involve another felony -- insurance fraud.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties many juveniles would steal cars just to have wheels. These joyriders often abandoned the cars soon after the theft without doing much damage to the vehicle. With the growth of juvenile gangs in many areas in the last couple of decades, joyriding has taken a sinister turn. Today many cars stolen by teens are "fenced" or "chopped" by others associated with the gang. They may also become part of the "cars for crack" scenario or be used in the commission of other crimes.

A final motivation for car theft is truly a product of our Information Age. Your car can be "stolen," while you continue to drive it. Here's how it works:

Just like you have an established identity, so does your car. You establish and verify your ID by your Social Security number and your Driver's License number. A car establishes and verifies its ID by its unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). If a thief gets hold of your vehicle registration and insurance card, items typically stowed in the glove compartment, a criminal can use that information to obtain a license plate. The thief can then steal a similar vehicle, alter its VIN to match your vehicle's VIN, and feel confident in his ability to sell the vehicle without detection. The result is a big payday for the criminal and a huge headache for you, especially if the cloned vehicle is used in a crime or involved in an accident.

Despite the installation of alarm, theft-prevention and theft-recovery systems, no vehicle is immune to theft. But there are many steps you can take to encourage a thief to "steal elsewhere" rather than trying to pinpoint your car. In the next installment of this multi-part feature, we'll tell you what vehicles are most likely to be stolen, and we'll give you several time-proven tips to help you avoid the personal and financial trauma of car theft.

That statistic, though staggering, just takes into account the direct value of the vehicles stolen. Actually, car theft costs us as a society much more. Consider all the indirect costs associated with this crime epidemic.

Because car theft is so prevalent it increases the cost of law enforcement. The price of tracking down, prosecuting and jailing auto thieves takes a sizable bite out of local and state government budgets each year. Auto thefts also are a key factor in bumping up insurance premiums, and the cost is compounded when theft is accompanied by insurance fraud, as it very often is these days. If we could eliminate or severely curtail these two crimes, it would go a long way toward keeping everybody's car insurance costs down.

Of course, there are the costs of other, related crimes. Car thefts almost always result in the theft of personal property left in the vehicles. Not only does this engender a cost in and of itself, it also creates opportunities for other crimes. Many auto thieves emerge with items like checkbooks, bank deposit slips, credit cards and credit card receipts that can enable criminals to commit credit card and bank fraud.

The human price paid to car thieves is also large. Each year scores of car thefts result in murder and kidnapping. The evening news is filled with tales of car thieves driving off with their victims' small children still strapped into baby seats.

Recent efforts of law enforcement working in tandem with insurance companies in states like Pennsylvania, which created a governmental authority to deal with the problem, has put a dent in car theft, but the problem is still a gigantic one that has the potential to strike anyone of us who drives at any moment.

Car thieves have a variety of motivations. The most common ploy of the professional criminal is to steal vehicles in order to obtain the parts. Selling the parts of a car individually may bring a criminal two or three times what he could get selling the vehicle intact. Most often thieves collude with other criminals to set up "chop shops" that can strip a car down to its component parts in a matter of minutes. These parts go into the legendary, clandestine "Midnight Auto Parts" network that services shady repair shops and individual mechanics who are eager to purchase the stolen parts at a discount.

True Highway Heroes

Truck drivers who made a difference

America's professional truck drivers often get a bad rap in the media. They're portrayed as low-brow ruffians who hog the road, abuse speed in both senses of the word and generally make trouble for those who pilot cars. How often have the TV or movies presented a crazed trucker bent on forcing some poor, innocent car driver off the road? Like many stereotypes, that picture of the professional truck driver is way off the mark. Those who do a great deal of cross-country driving recognize that truckers, as a group, are the most courteous drivers on the road. Just offer him the benefit of a turn signal and acknowledge the fact that his vehicle is bigger and harder to handle than a passenger car, and the average trucker will go out of the way to give you the benefit of the doubt. In the course of the hundreds of thousands of miles they drive each year, many truckers are given the chance to be more than just courteous. In emergency situations, professional drivers often rise to the occasion by performing lifesaving feats. The reports abound from all across the nation, and what follows are the stories of six professional truck drivers who risked their own lives to help others. These brave men have been selected as finalists for the 1999 Goodyear North America Highway Hero Award, the trucking industry's most prestigious award for heroism.

Quick Thinking Saves Two

On June 22, Terry Harvey of Salt Lick, Kentucky, and Floyd Anthony Miller of Irvine, Kentucky, who were driving separate rigs, came across a fiery accident involving a Jeep and a sedan on Kentucky's Mountain Parkway. The quick-thinking men broke out the back window of the upside-down Jeep and used a knife to free the driver from his seatbelt. Then they used an air mattress in the back of the Jeep to drag the 275-pound driver to safety. At the same time the driver of the sedan was trapped in his wrecked vehicle, and the fire from the Jeep spread dangerously close, threatening his life. As bystanders stood at a distance, fearing an explosion, Harvey and Miller used a nylon strap connected to Harvey's truck to pull the sedan out of harm's way. Soon afterward, the blaze reached the Jeep's gas tank, causing a fireball that engulfed the area where the sedan had been located. Both drivers survived the accident. Harvey drives for American Freightways Inc. of Lexington, and Miller drives for Kentucky Petroleum Supply of Winchester.

When Extinguishers Failed

In the early morning hours of April 9 on Interstate 95 in Virginia, Morris Holley of Baltimore witnessed a vehicle slam into the rear of another vehicle, overturn and catch fire. Running from his rig, he tried to extinguish the blaze himself, and, when his efforts failed, he radioed for other truck drivers to help. The combined power of several truckers' extinguishers were unable to overcome the gasoline-fed inferno, and some bystanders, fearing an explosion, began to back away from the scene. This, despite the fact that an unconscious woman lay trapped inside the car. That's when Ronald McKee of Middletown, New Jersey, picked up a spent extinguisher, broke out the car's rear window and, braving the fire, dragged the woman to safety. Literally within seconds of McKee's dramatic rescue, the car exploded. Holley, McKee and other drivers tended to the crash victim until rescue crews arrived, and the woman survived her ordeal. Holley drives for Swift Transportation Inc. of Richmond, Virginia, and McKee drives for Arctic Express of Hilliard, Ohio.

A Friend to the Rescue

On September 29, Jeffrey Wiles of Montpelier, Ohio, noticed a van weaving erratically through morning traffic on Route 15 near Bryan, Ohio. He contacted police by radio as he followed the van for more than a mile. At that point, the van veered off the road, struck a retaining wall and came to a stop on top of a gas main. The crash broke off the top of the gas main, and the vehicle was quickly engulfed in flames.

Wiles and two other motorists tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire, not knowing that a 20-pound propane tank and full 5-gallon gas container were in the back of the burning van. Then they broke out the rear window of the van and pulled the driver to safety.

Only after the driver was freed did Wiles realize that the victim was a friend he had worked with closely on the local EMS team. The driver, a diabetic, had gone into insulin shock while driving, but because of his buddy's fast action, he survived the accident.

Wiles drives for Bryan Truck Line in Montpelier.

First Aid Saves a Life

While picking up a load in Garwood, New Jersey, on February 7 of last year, John McDonald of Memphis, heard a commotion inside the building. A panicked worker ran up to McDonald and told him that a co-worker desperately needed help inside. Barrels weighing several hundred pounds had fallen, and one of them landed on the worker's leg, severing it. Despite the fact that other barrels stacked precariously nearby could have fallen on him at any moment, McDonald patiently applied a tourniquet to the victim's leg and consoled him until rescue crews arrived. Doctors were unable to reattach the victim's leg, but he did survive.

McDonald drives for M.S. Carriers Inc. in Memphis.

"We should all feel a little safer knowing there are courageous individuals like these six men on our roadways," said Mike Thomann, Goodyear's marketing director for commercial tires. "During the 17 years since the inception of the Highway Hero program, we have heard about hundreds of truck drivers who placed themselves in harm's way to save someone else, and we think it is important that they be recognized publicly."

On March 23, the drivers who performed these selfless acts will be introduced to the trucking industry at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, and one of the drivers will be named the Goodyear North America Highway Hero for 1999.

The six finalists were selected from 24 state and provincial winners throughout the United States and Canada. A panel of judges, consisting of members of the trucking and tire trade media, will select the 1999 Goodyear North America Highway Hero, who will receive a $20,000 savings bond. The other finalists will receive $5,000 savings bonds. All of the finalists receive a free trip to the Mid-America Trucking Show and, following the awards ceremony, a trip to Nashville.

--- John Jaha

Jaha writes frequently about trucks and the trucking industry.

Driving While Drowsy

‘Driving with your eyes closed can kill you,’ expert says...

The crusade against drunk driving has gained a great deal of momentum, and rightly so. More than 15,000 people were killed last year in alcohol-related accidents, and the push to end this carnage is making historic progress. But as we make inroads against drunk drivers, there is another killer on the highways that gets far less attention. It’s more insidious than driving under the influence because it is harder to detect. And it is harder to stamp out because there are few laws that legislate against it. But it is a sure and certain killer, and in these days when many of us are working more days and longer hours, it seems destined to increase rather than decrease.

What is it?

Simple drowsiness. Driving while over-tired. Falling asleep at the wheel.

There is nothing new about this menace, but, after looking at the damage it has caused thousands of human lives each year, there is no doubt it is a problem with which we must deal. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsiness is the primary causal factor in 100,000 police-reported crashes each year, crashes that resulted in 76,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths. While that seems like a significant menace, the NHTSA figures might well underestimate the extent of the problem. The NHTSA estimates mean that drowsy driving represents one to three percent of all police-reported crashes and four percent of fatalities, but other experts suggest the problem might be even bigger. A United Kingdom study concluded that as many as 20 percent of police-reported crashes were sleep-related, and an Australian study pegged the figure at six percent. In addition, NHTSA says that driver inattention was the primary cause of some one million accidents last year, and contributors to inattention are sleepiness and fatigue, which is exacerbated by sleep deprivation.

The fact that we, as a nation, are not getting enough sleep has been documented by many sources recently. In the 1998 Omnibus Sleep in America Poll, conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, some 32 percent of American adults said they sleep six or fewer hours per night, and 64 percent say they sleep less than the recommended eight hours. More than one-third of respondents told the survey they had experienced daytime drowsiness severe enough to interfere with their jobs. But what was most alarming was the fact that 57 percent of Americans said they had driven while drowsy in the past year and nearly one-quarter (23 percent) said they had actually fallen asleep at the wheel.

These statistics become truly scary when one examines them in light of a recent study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center (HSRC). In the first-ever study of its kind, researchers, led by Dr. Jane C. Stutts, Dr. Jean W. Wilkins and Dr. Bradley V. Vaughn, studied hundreds of sleep and fatigue-related car crashes to identify the driver behavior that caused or contributed to them.

"Previous studies about drowsiness and driving were done in a laboratory," said David K. Willis, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. "This is the first time anyone has looked at real-world crashes to see what happens. And what happens is that drivers who have had six or less hours of sleep or who often drive between midnight and 6 a.m. put themselves at very high risk."

The researchers used police crash reports and driver records to identify and interview 1,400 drivers. Included in the sample were four separate groups: drivers who crashed after falling asleep, drivers who crashed while fatigued, drivers who crashed for non-sleep reasons, and a control group of drivers who had not had a crash in three years. Each respondent was asked to complete a detailed questionnaire about work schedules, sleep habits, quality of sleep, amount of driving, and the circumstances surrounding each crash. Drivers were also asked questions to assess their present levels of sleepiness.

When the data was analyzed, large differences were found among the groups. One telling factor was that both those who crashed after falling asleep at the wheel and those who crashed while fatigued had slept substantially less than the drivers who crashed in non-sleep-related accidents and drivers in the control group, who had not crashed at all. Just a fifth of drivers involved in sleep- or fatigue-related crashes reported getting eight or more hours of sleep before the crash, compared with nearly half of the drivers in the control (non-crash) group.

The old Edgar Bergen line was, "They say hard work won’t kill you, but why take the chance?" Though said in jest, that advice seems quite apropos in light of the study’s findings. Not only was simple lack of sleep a significant factor in the sleep- and fatigue-related crashes, work schedules were also an important factor.

Compared to drivers in non-sleep-related crashes, drivers in sleep crashes were nearly twice as likely to work at more than one job, and their primary job was more likely to involve an atypical schedule. Some 14 percent of employed drivers involved in sleep crashes and 24 percent of employed drivers in fatigue crashes worked the night shift, and the study estimated that working a night shift increased the odds of a sleep-related crash by nearly six times. For those of you who regularly burn the midnight oil, you should know that working more than 60 hours a week increased the odds of having a sleep-related crash by 40 percent.

Drowsy driving is a difficult problem to confront, because many people who wouldn’t think of getting behind the wheel after a few drinks have no qualms about slipping into the driver’s seat when dog-tired. Unlike drinking and driving, there is little of no social stigma about driving while drowsy, and people who put in long working hours are universally lauded in our society.

If you, like many, feel that you’ll know when you’re too tired to drive, the study had this sobering finding: Around half the drivers in sleep-related crashes said they did not feel even moderately drowsy before they crashed, including many of those who were labeled by police reports "asleep at the wheel." Many drivers simply do not know how sleepy they are.

The study indicated that "People need to think about sleep even when they don't feel tired," Willis said. "Driving with your eyes closed can kill you."

Now that you know about the problem, here are some danger factors strongly associated with having a drowsy driving crash:
  • Sleeping less than six hours per night

  • Being awake for 20 hours or longer

  • Working more than one job and/or working night shifts

  • Frequent driving between midnight and 6 a.m.

The study also determined that drivers in sleep and fatigue crashes were more likely to try to deal with their drowsiness once they were on the road rather than by planning ahead and taking precautions such as getting enough sleep or using caffeine. Their stop-gap measures usually did little or no good.

It is the consensus of experts that the only truly effective strategy you can take to prevent a crash when you’re drowsy or fatigued is to stop driving immediately and get some sleep. Sadly, many drivers feel that is impossible for one reason or another, so they don’t make the effort to get proper sleep. In those instances, the authors of the study encourage drivers to stop, drink some caffeinated beverages (the equivalent of two cups of coffee) and take a brief nap before getting behind the wheel.

Perhaps the most important factor is to recognize that your drowsiness or fatigue can kill you and others. Hard work is praiseworthy, but not at the expense of lives.

-- Jack R. Nerad

Nerad works four jobs and routinely logs more than 60 work hours a week. He’s decided to rest comfortably for the remainder of the day before driving.