March 29, 2006
I’m a graduate of the Winter Sports School in Park City, and a sophomore at Stanford University. As a psychology major, I have had the opportunity to take "Sleep and Dreams," a class taught by William Dement, M.D., Ph.D., the world’s leading expert on sleep. Dement has been at Stanford for more than 40 years developing the medical field of sleep, and it’s of the utmost importance to him that we as students realize the danger that drowsiness and sleep debt pose, particularly while driving. He demands the class repeat, "Drowsiness is Red Alert!" on multiple occasions every lecture. After absorbing his message, I can’t help but think how relevant this topic is to the Park City community, as the high number of falling-asleep-at-the-wheel accidents always surprises me. Both fatal and injury accidents can be avoided through education and knowledge, and by taking Dement’s valuable message to heart.
Eighty-seven percent of all falling-asleep-at-the-wheel accidents are fatal and, contrary to popular belief, drowsiness is the last step before falling asleep, not the first. The onset of drowsiness is the first moment at which you must make an effort to keep your eyes open, and being in a state of drowsiness is when you must continually fight against falling asleep. Drowsiness should be regarded as a stark sign to get off the road, if only to take a 15-30 minute nap. It has been clinically proven that a 15-30 minute nap is enough to restore some alertness in drivers, and getting out of the car and engaging in some running or jumping for a couple moments also helps dispel some effects of drowsiness.
Dement warns that the vast majority of Americans are sleep-deprived, known also as having a high "sleep debt." Sleep debt is cumulative, and Dement stresses the importance of not only acquiring enough hours of sleep to meet one’s daily sleep need, but also stresses the importance of further lowering existing sleep debt. The fact that most people carry a huge sleep debt, coupled with another significant factor, place the young drivers of Park City, particularly, at risk for drowsy-driving accidents. While adolescents get less sleep despite actually needing more sleep, the other weighty factor is the routine drive up the canyon after a late night in Salt Lake. As Dement describes, "Driving is monotonous, it’s not very challenging, and it doesn’t involve much physical effort. All of these factors relax drivers, diminish psychological alerting, and uncover the sleep debt lurking in the brain." And while young adults are particularly vulnerable to falling asleep at the wheel, even general sleepiness and tiredness have been demonstrated as very dangerous to driving.
One study found people with mild to moderate sleep-disordered breathing (a cause of tiredness) to have worse reaction times than healthy, non-sleepy subjects whose blood alcohol content (BAC) is illegally high for driving a motor vehicle in California and in Utah. Moreover, Dement declares that being awake for 18 hours matches a BAC of .05, and 24 hours of wakefulness are equal to roughly a BAC of .10. These facts absolutely shocked me, as teenagers are so heavily warned about driving drunk, yet rarely cautioned about driving tired.
The experience in Dement’s class has been invaluable for me and the 700 students who fill Dinkelspiel Auditorium three days a week. The points emphasized in class have such practical application to daily life with respect to promoting general health and safety. You can fall asleep in 10 seconds and drastically change your life and someone else’s, or you can be knowledgeable about and respectful of the detrimental effects of sleep debt.