How to avoid falling asleep at wheel

MARIETTA – It takes more than an hour for Justin Hoff to drive from his home in Newport to his job at Alcan Rolled Products in Ravenswood, W.Va.

“I get tired, definitely, on midnights especially,” said Hoff, 33. “On midnights, I almost always stop halfway, get something to eat, and go the rest of the way.”

Hoff said he’s felt drowsy on the drive before but has never actually fallen asleep at the wheel.

According to a study released earlier this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 24 adults in the United States can’t say the same.

In the study, for which 147,000 adults in 19 states and the District of Columbia were surveyed in 2009 and 2010, about 4 percent of respondents said they nodded off or fell asleep while driving in the previous month. Some experts think the rate is even higher as some drivers don’t realize when they nod off for a second or two.

Nationally, it’s estimated that about 3 percent of fatal traffic crashes involve drowsy drivers, although other estimates have placed that number much higher.

Lt. Carlos Smith, commander of the Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Marietta post, said from 2009 to 2012, 81 crashes to which the patrol responded in Washington County involved sleepy or fatigued drivers. That’s about 2 percent of all crashes the patrol investigated during that period.

“We often get calls reported as drunk drivers, and the troopers may pull them over and it can be a case where they’re sleepy or fatigued,” Smith said.

Assigned to the post last month, Smith himself has a nearly two-hour commute to work one way from the Canton area until his family makes the move here.

“My days total about 11 hours,” he said. “I get a good night’s sleep … anywhere from eight or more hours of sleep a night.”

Getting that good night’s sleep is the key to curbing drowsy driving, said Raphael Perez, a registered sleep technician at Marietta Memorial Hospital’s sleep lab. But everything from sleep disorders to bad habits to pestering pets can keep people from doing so.

Many times, people will claim they can get by on less than the recommended seven-and-a-half to eight hours of sleep a night, but Perez said individuals for whom that’s true are rare. And people’s habits before they go to bed can prevent them from having a restful night.

“They’re not self-aware about what they’re doing to themselves,” Perez said.

Perez recommends people practice good “sleep hygiene,” which means developing a proper set of rituals before going to bed. These include avoiding caffeine and other stimulants, reading with a bedside lamp instead of having an overhead light or the television on and not texting or checking email late. Lights from electronic devices have been shown to stimulate the retina and give the impression that it’s daytime instead of night, he said.

Having a dark, comfortable environment – whenever possible free of interruptions from pets, children and a tossing, turning or snoring spouse – is also a must for satisfying sleep, Perez said.

In some cases, individuals may suffer from disorders like sleep apnea, in which the airway is partially or totally blocked while sleeping, keeping the individual from getting enough oxygen. If a person is struggling to get a good night’s sleep, Perez recommended talking to a doctor, who may refer them for a sleep study.

If drowsiness should strike while one is behind the wheel, Perez said the best thing to do is pull over safely and get some rest.

“Get to the nearest rest stop, lean the seat back and maybe take a 10-minute nap,” he said.

Marietta resident Ron Rees drives 40,000 to 50,000 miles a year in his job as the executive director of the Corporation for Ohio Appalachian Development. He’s developed a few strategies for staying awake on the road.

“Satellite radio has been very helpful for me. I can always … find something on there that’s real energizing,” Rees said. He also rolls down the windows to feel a breeze, stops for a bit to stretch his legs and isn’t hesitant to grab a coffee. Using a hands-free cell phone also allows him to keep up on calls and keep his mind occupied, he said.