The holidays may be a season of joy, but a message from Ira Dreyfuss at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reminds us that it can quickly turn into a season of grief if we're not mindful of the added stress and fatigue that this time of year often brings about for our minds and bodies. 

In his HHS HealthBeat, Dreyfuss points out that working late, shopping late, holiday parties, staying up late to watch holiday specials--these are all things that can add up, or rather subtract from safe driving, especially for busy professionals whose plates only get fuller with the added commitments brought on by the holidays. And the consequences can be quite steep. 

According to Daniel Chapman at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowsy driving is implicated in approximately 16 percent of fatal crashes and approximately 13 percent of crashes requiring hospitalization (and these statistics are believed to be an underestimate of the problem). Equally as concerning is Chapman's report that one survey revealed that 28 percent of those surveyed acknowledged falling asleep behind the wheel in the past year; other surveys found even higher numbers.

One of the biggest problems in combating drowsy driving is lack of awareness of the dangers. Whereas most people are aware of the dangers of driving while intoxicated, many don't recognize that drowsiness can be equally as dangerous. Sleepiness impairs judgment, performance and reaction times in the same way alcohol and drugs do. In fact, according to the the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), "being awake for more than 20 hours results in an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08, the legal limit in all states."

Because many people aren't very good at predicting when they are too sleepy to drive, the NSF has identified key warning signs. These include:

  • Trouble focusing, keeping your eyes open or your head up
  • Yawning or rubbing your eyes repeatedly
  • Daydreaming and wandering thoughts
  • Drifting from your lane, tailgating and missing signs or exits
  • Feeling restless, irritable or aggressive
  • Turning up the radio or rolling down the window
  • Slower reaction time, poor judgment

The NSF suggests that if you experience any of these warning signs, you should pull over at a safe place immediately, switch drivers if possible, take a short nap, consume caffeine (but don't rely on it for long periods of time), or find a place to sleep for the night. The NSF also notes that the best way to avoid a drowsy driving crash is to get adequate sleep, don't drive when tired, avoid driving when you're taking medication that is known to cause drowsiness (read medication labels or consult with your doctor), and/or drive with a friend or passenger who can recognize signs of drowsy driving and take a turn at the wheel.

So, as more things get added to our to-do lists during the holidays and more people take to the roads for shopping and holiday travel, please keep in mind that sufficient rest should be right up there on your priority list. As the NSF says, "No trip is worth a life. Before you hit the road, keep these tips in mind so that you can drive alert and arrive alive."

For more information about drowsy driving, visit

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011). 

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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