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Driving Drowsy? Hand Over the Keys, Commission Says

We all know the dangers of drunk driving. But what about the hazards of drowsy driving? That's when you're so tired you can barely stay awake at the wheel. Drowsy driving causes an estimated twenty percent of all motor vehicle crashes and about 8,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

So today a commission formed by Governor Deval Patrick will recommend that driving while sleep-deprived should become as serious an offense as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

SOUND OF TRUCK ENGINE IDLING

At the Natick service plaza on the Mass Turnpike, James Fussell is sitting in his idling 18-wheel freight truck making a breakfast stop. He's eating an egg sandwich, and he's on his way back to Boston from an overnight delivery of milk to Albany, New York. He makes trips like this frequently, and he says the lengthy drives can be tiring.

JAMES FUSSELL: "When it's nighttime and there's nothing out there on the road and all you see is the lines going jhoop, jhoom — it's kind of like a daze, you know?"

Fussell, who lives in Lynn, says he's come up with creative ways to keep himself awake.

FUSSELL: "You know you get tired and I'll crank the window down and let the cold air poof 'round your face. You know, roll it back up, in about 15 minutes get warm, and then you'll crank it right back now, you know?"

Fussell says that stops him from ever dozing at the wheel. He says he also drinks Red Bull and talks on his cell phone hands-free to stay alert. But all that still worries Charles Czeisler. He's director of Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine.

CHARLES CZEISLER: "People do various things — they pinch themselves, they do one thing or another to try to keep awake. One nurse said that she would take her pony tail, put it in the sun roof, and close the sun roof on it so that when she would nod off driving home from the night shift, that would keep her awake. That's not safe."

And it's not just truckers and medical workers logging 80-hour work weeks who often drive while exhausted. Czeisler says society in general is so fast-paced these days that many of us are perpetually fatigued, and that we should think twice before putting the keys in the ignition. A 2005 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60 percent of adult drivers admit driving while drowsy, and almost 40 percent say they've actually fallen asleep at the wheel.

CZEISLER: "Drowsy driving crashes are some of most dangerous types of crashes because if you fall asleep at the wheel, there's very little that can be done to avoid your plowing into a tree or hitting an embankment. Even a drunk driver may take an evasive maneuver, but a drowsy driver is not going to do that."

That's why a state commission that Czeisler serves on plans to recommend today that the punishment for drowsy driving become substantially tougher.

CZEISLER: "It would be a penalty comparable to the penalty associated with drunk driving."

After all, Czeisler says, if you drive when you're overly tired, you're basically sleep drunk. Your reaction time is sluggish, as if you've been drinking. So Czeisler's commission is proposing that if you're in a car accident and you'd been getting less then four hours of sleep a night for the previous week, then the presumed cause of the crash will be drowsy driving. And if you kill another person, you could be found guilty of motor vehicle homicide while under the influence of sleep deprivation.

Now, there is no blood test or Breathalyzer for exhaustion. So Czeisler says police and prosecutors would do investigations of your daily schedule to determine if you'd been sleeping too little.

CZEISLER: "They're done usually by reconstructing phone records, Fast Lane records, records from ATM machines and charge cards."

If that sounds too Big Brotherish for your taste, Senator Richard Moore isn't sympathetic.

RICHARD MOORE: "Oh, we always get that."

Moore also serves on the state's Special Commission on Drowsy Driving.

MOORE: "Just like it took probably 20 to 30 years to educate people that drunk driving is not something to laugh at, I think it's going to take 10 to 20 years to get the public fully tuned in to what the issues are with sleep deprivation."

The commission also wants more rumble strips along highways, more rest stops, and more parking for commercial vehicles so long-haul drivers can stop and sleep. It wants to reduce the amount of time abandoned vehicles can sit on state roads, from three days to four hours. That's because drowsy drivers could be injured or killed if they plow into a broken-down car. The commission also wants to hand out discount coffee coupons so sleepy drivers could use a jolt of caffeine to stay awake.

And if you have a body mass index of more than 33, which usually indicates obesity, the commission wants you tested for sleep apnea if you want a commercial drivers' license. A positive diagnosis would mean you'd need treatment before you could get your commercial license. Charles Czeisler of Harvard Medical School explains why.

CZEISLER: "Untreated sleep apnea increases the risk of motor vehicle crashes by 500 to 700 percent, so it is a very dangerous condition in which to drive."

SOUND OF TRUCK ENGINE IDLING

Back at the Natick service plaza, trucker Alvaro Fonseco is resting after spending five days driving an 18-wheeler from southern California to Boston to deliver a load of broccoli. He keeps a sparkly bean bag lizard on his dash board to remind him of his wife and daughter back in San Antonio, Texas. And he says as soon as he senses he's becoming tired, he pulls over to sleep.

ALVARO FONSECO: "Some other jobs you can afford to close your eyes for four or five seconds. Nothing's going to happen. But driving a truck — three, four, five seconds is way too much."

Because nodding off at the wheel, Fonseco says, can turn a truck or car into a deadly weapon.

This program aired on March 6, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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