Feingold: Driving drowsy - if you snooze, you lose

Dr. Murray Feingold

At one time or another we all have been guilty of driving while being drowsy. You open to window so the cool air will refresh you and turn on the radio full blast in an attempt to keep you awake.

Some people actually do the smart thing and pull over and get some rest.

How big a problem is drowsy driving? Numbers vary. Results of one study of 147,000 people showed that 4 percent reported falling asleep while driving during the previous 30 days. That’s a lot of people. Another study showed that 2 percent of all crashes with non-fatal injuries involved drowsy driving. However, the more accurate number is believed to be much higher.

Are older drivers guiltier of driving while drowsy? No. Greater than 5 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 44 drove while drowsy in comparison to 1.7 percent among drivers older than 65.

Drowsiness impairs the driver’s driving skills and decision making, slows down reaction time and the driver is less attentive.

The problem is so significant that the National Sleep Association sponsors a "Drowsy Driving Prevention Week."

And, unfortunately automobile drivers are not the only ones who drive while drowsy. Pilots and train operators were also found guilty of this serious offense.

A fairly common cause of drivers being tired is the use of certain medications. This is such a serious issue that it is advised not to drive when taking these medications. Many people are unaware that medicines used to help them to go to sleep at night can also make them drowsy the next day while driving to work.

Because it a significant problem, the Food and Drug Administration recently asked the manufacturers of the sleep medication zolpidem or Ambien to lower its recommended dose. The reason for this is that the next morning the levels of Ambien can be high enough to cause drowsiness and an inability to perform certain activities.

Car manufacturers are aware of this problem and are researching and installing "Drowsy Driver Alert" systems.

So, add to, "Don’t Drink and Drive," "Snooze and You Lose." But what is most important is, "Don’t Drive When Drowsy."

Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of The Feingold Center for Children, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.