Is drowsy driving as dangerous as drunk driving?

SALT LAKE CITY (News4Utah)  You're driving down the highway and your eyes are getting heavier and heavier. You're trying to stay alert and awake, but finding it more difficult with every mile. Most of us have been in this situation while humming down an interstate highway. That is when we have to make a choice - plow ahead or pull over and get some rest. 

"Driving to Vegas - that is insane. It's like. I've had enough. Got to pull over."  "If I'm going out of town and I start having that issue I will usually stop at a hotel or something." Robert Redder and Spence Fowler say they won't drive when they are that tired. Sadly, a lot of people don't do what Robert and Spence do. In fact, 16 percent of all fatal car crashes are due to drowsy driving - and they caused 5,000 deaths.
Utah is not immune. We had 14 fatal drowsy driving wrecks in 2015 and 15 in 2016. Experts say drowsy driving is just as dangerous as drinking and driving. We find out why in this special report - "Drowsy Driving: Asleep Behind The Wheel." 

We begin along I-15. We can see the aftermath of an accident caused by a driver who feel asleep behind the wheel. Investigators say the SUV slammed into a UHP trooper's cruiser. Fortunately, he was outside of it. He was seriously injured and others involved were also hurt. While Trooper Devyn Gurney survived, last year - six people died in drowsy driving accidents in Utah. 60 percent of us admit to driving drowsy. 37 percent of us admit at some point we've nodded off at the wheel. Both according to the NHTSA. 

We talked to Spence Fowler about driving when tired. He says "You realize - 'Hey wait a second - I might have just gone to sleep for a second.' It scares you a little bit." Fowler says that happened to him when he was younger, but not anymore. "When you think you have a little more energy than you really do - but when you get to a point in your life that you don't have that energy you start playing it smarter." Unfortunately, UHP troopers say too many people are not playing it smart. UHP Sergeant Chris Newlin says "The magnitude of the problem is difficult for us to understand." 

So, what happens to a good driver when he or she gets tired? Without the danger of actually getting in a car and driving drowsy down the freeway, we set to find out. At the Tanner Clinic in Layton Dr. Benjamin Christiansen's neuropsychology department conducted some non-drowsy and drowsy tests on me. Dr. Ben says "Think of everything that's important -- to stay alert to everything around me, I've got to constantly be scanning the environment to be able to multi-task--what's my car doing? What's the car in front of me doing?" The testing looked at reaction time, alertness, selective attention, and divided attention.  Dr. Ben - as his patients call him - says the mental and physical responses during the testing are comparable to responses we have when driving. Dr. Benjamin Christiansen: "...we actually did just very basic scanning of that executive function of the full frontal lobe: Everything that it uses to pay attention, to stay alert, to scan your environment."  

After the non-drowsy testing, I went to work at ABC4. It was a typical day. I anchored the 5, 6 and 10PM newscasts. Instead of going home at 11 PM, I stayed and worked on a few things. Then about three in the morning, I drove to a convenience store - where I stood around to avoid sitting and falling asleep.  The reason for this particular store? It was about a mile from where I was scheduled to meet Sgt. Newlin and to drive a car on a closed track - after 24 hours without sleep.  

For the driving portion I had a camera on my windshield and News4Utah Special Projects Producer Sam Highsmith was sitting in the passenger seat with a camera. We were also talking for most of the drive. (See WEB EXTRA below) In fact, the driving test wasn't difficult to do without sleep. I believe that was due to the fact I had a passenger in my car and we were talking. There were two cameras in the car and a photographer capturing video outside the car as well. The distractions actually kept me from being drowsy. However, about 45 minutes later - (around 10 AM) when I tried to drive back on I-15 to see Dr. Christiansen. I couldn't do it. I was way too drowsy and had to get a ride with Sam to the office. 

But even before that happened - Sgt Newlin talked to me about drowsy driving and ran me through an impaired driver test. Just like he would do if he pulled over a suspected drunk driver. "The next test I'm going to ask you to do is one of the standardized tests, but it involves you touching heel to toe and walking a straight line." I miss-counted my steps during this exercise. "Turn was good, but you had an improper number of steps." He also had me touch me fingers and count. One sequence went like this: "1,2,3,4. 4,2,3,2,1" And apparently I did too many sequences. 
Sgt. Newlin: "How many times did I ask you to do it? Do you remember?"
Don Hudson: "three."
Sgt. Newlin: "That was four."
Don Hudson: "Wow. It's almost as if I didn't go to bed last night. (laughter)."

The lack of sleep was already starting to affect the simplest of tasks. So, after a few more minutes with the trooper - we went to see Dr. Ben and re-take the same cognitive tests from the day before. This time in a drowsy state.  " actually have to maintain your attention at something pretty boring just like driving." Dr. Ben compared sitting at the computer and doing simple tasks is very much like freeway driving. As I tried to focus - Dr. Ben said my brain was trying to shut down.  And just like a drowsy driver going down the road - my eyes got heavy -my alertness and reaction waned - and my test scores plunged. "So here's where you were and within 24 hours of no sleep, you've almost doubled your impairment." 

Imagine that level of impairment behind the wheel. "So you think about a car going 60 miles per hour, and your brain says stop and you're OK. OK. Now I'll stop. Well, You're too late."  Dr. Ben says when we're tired our brains can't keep pace. "Your problem wasn't that you weren't seeing what was happening, your brain wasn't reacting fast enough to everything around it."  People think caffeine will save them, but Dr. Ben says, not really. 'It speeds you up, but it doesn't change your reaction time -- that's a completely different process. So they'll say they feel more alert, but research shows us that even if they are alert, the reaction time actually doesn't get better."  

Dr. Ben says people have to realize when they're tired - it's more than just their body wanting to go to bed. "What you feel and what your brain feels are two very, very different issues."
And while Sgt. Newlin doesn't know the science of sleep - he knows when drivers are tired. And he says as a safety and really a life and death issue - drivers have to be more responsible. "It is a conscious choice to speed, to drive aggressively to drive impaired. To a lesser extent, it is a conscious choice to drive drowsy. We all know if we have been up all night. We all know if we're feeling tired. And I would encourage your viewers if they feel that way choose not to drive."

In most places, driving under the influence is having a blood-alcohol level of .05 or .08. A recent study showed that going 18 hours without sleep is like having a blood alcohol level of .05. And after 24 hours without sleep - it's the same as having a blood alcohol level of point .10. 

For more on the subject of drowsy driving and to watch me go through the impairment test and the driving portion of the test check out the bonus material with this story at:




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