This editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday:
Society looks askance at the inebriated person who gets behind the wheel and the one who texts while driving. But no such opprobrium faces the groggy driver. Perhaps America is too tired to notice him.
A new study by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, however, provides a wake-up call, saying Americans who drive sleep-deprived are as dangerous as those who drive drunk. Among the findings: Those who slept for fewer than four hours in a 24-hour period had an 11.5 percent elevated risk of getting into an accident while those who slept six to seven hours had an increased risk of 1.3 percent. According to one AAA official, driving on four hours’ sleep is akin to getting behind the wheel with a blood-alcohol content of 0.12 or 0.15, well above the legal limit of 0.08.
One can only imagine what the risk would be for sleep-deprived drivers who also are manipulating the car’s instruments, texting, talking on the phone or cruising along with limited visibility or bad weather.
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Driving while tired is part of America’s on-the-go culture and a trend not easily reversed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep per day, but many live chronically short on shuteye. However, “you cannot miss sleep and still expect to be able to function behind the wheel,” said David Yang, the foundation’s executive director.
The nation has cracked down on drunken driving and increased compliance with seat belt laws, so there is reason to believe that the behavior of sleepy drivers can be modified, too. Truckers are subject to federal rules mandating breaks for sleep and maximum driving periods to reduce driver fatigue.
Public awareness, such as that provided by the AAA report, can help. Promotion of public transportation and ride-sharing programs is another option. New penalties may be something to consider, too.
The bottom line is that impairment is impairment, whether the cause is having too much alcohol or not catching enough winks. Drivers must think of the risk to others before getting behind the wheel. Make sense? Sleep on it.