Driver fatigue factor in fatal crashes, worse in summer

LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- An annoying thumping noise like someone banging on walls, wakes the Airman from his sleep. Suddenly aware, he jerks the steering wheel away from the shoulder of the freeway before driving completely off the road.

Most drivers have faced drowsiness at some point in their lives, but sleepiness at the wheel, often referred to as driver fatigue, can be deadly.

Driving fatigue is one term used to describe the experience of driving while being sleepy or exhausted. It is both a physiological and psychological experience and is one of six contributing factors in fatal crashes, especially during summer months.

According to experts, the 101 days of summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, are the deadliest days on the road and driver fatigue is often a contributing factor.

"The decisive factor in avoiding an automobile accident is the simple matter of concentrating on the task at hand," said Tech. Sgt. Wallace Greenwood, 56th Fighter Wing ground safety technician. "Fatigued drivers have slower reaction times, putting themselves and others in danger when they encounter unexpected or emergency situations. "People often think that driver fatigue means falling asleep at the wheel. Falling asleep, however, is an extreme form of fatigue, he said. Fatigue is tiredness, weariness or exhaustion. You can be fatigued enough to impair your driving long before you nod off at the wheel.

The signs and symptoms of fatigue include forgetfulness, being fixated, poor decision making, slowed reaction times, lethargy, reduced vigilance, moodiness, not communicating well and ultimately, nodding off.

While drunk-driving and speeding are easier for law enforcement officials to target than fatigue, crashes involving driver fatigue can be just as deadly, Sergeant Greenwood said. Driver fatigue, combined with other factors such as alcohol and speed, dramatically increases the risk of an accident, according to experts.

"Although fatigue is very difficult to measure, it's a natural physiological function that occurs in everyone," Sergeant Greenwood said.

Lack of sleep is one of the most common causes of fatigue. Although everyone's basic sleep needs are different, the average requirement is seven to eight hours a day. Several nights of restricted sleep leads to a sleep debt, which can cause the brain to sleep involuntarily.

To improve alertness, get plenty of sleep prior to a long journey, plan to drive during times of the day when you are normally awake and stay somewhere overnight rather than traveling straight through.

For more information, call the 56th Wing Safety Office at (623) 856-6104.