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ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
A DANGEROUS LESSON: IF YOU SNOOZE, YOU LOSE

The young man from Clarence will never forget the morning of Aug. 3, 1995. He had a big breakfast at home, and then he left for Albany to see his sister's newborn triplets.

Maybe it was the food or maybe it was the long hours he spent at his masonry job, but the 19-year-old got only as far as Syracuse before his eyes closed. His station wagon veered off the highway, careened through a construction site and slammed into a dump truck at 65 mph.

"When I hit the truck, I broke the windshield with my head," he recalled in a recent interview. "I had a concussion, and I cut my hand pretty bad."

He stumbled away, bleeding from a badly injured hand, but without any permanent damage. After surgery and therapy to repair the ripped skin and severed tendons, he is back to normal.

Not everyone is so lucky. It's well-known that drinking and driving kills, and that not wearing seat belts does, too.

But now New York is leading the nation in an educational campaign about another trouble on the roads: drowsy driving.

People under 25, especially males, are a high-risk group. Some of the most tired drivers are college students who cram all night, take exams, and drive home or to their parents' homes, sometimes many hours away.

We've all done it -- worked a long day and desperately fended off sleep on the drive home.

Accidents usually happen on long drives, but even short drives are dangerous if a driver is tired.

One local teen, James Nashcq, said his summer job as a traveling salesman was draining, and he was often drowsy behind the wheel on both short and long trips. Nash, 19, of Snyder, said he sometimes pulled over and napped to avoid an accident.

"I was exhausted," he said. "It was work, going out late at night, and then being back at work early in the morning."

Each year nationally, 1,500 people die and 72,000 are injured in accidents caused by drivers who fall asleep, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In New York, 1,670 people died in traffic accidents, and officially, 4 percent of the accidents were caused by a dozing driver.

But Gary Decker, a Highway Safety Program analyst, said these percentages are probably much higher, because there is no way to tell if fatigue caused an accident. He said most drivers won't admit they fell asleep.

Dr. Michael Heimerl, president of the Buffalo Pediatric Society, said that most teens are sleep-deprived, and "with the energy, the brainpower they need, we're not giving them enough time to rest."

"It's tough enough to be an inexperienced driver," he said, "but imagine a tired, inexperienced driver."

Teens who don't get enough sleep accumulate a "sleep debt." David W. Shucard, director of the Buffalo Sleep Center at Buffalo General Hospital, called teens "the most efficient sleepers -- they can sleep on a picket fence." He said teens often sleep late on the weekends to make up for sleep they missed during the week.

Without enough sleep, many teens are tired in the early morning and afternoon, when most fatigue-related accidents happen.

Mary A. Carskadon, a sleep researcher at Brown University School of Medicine, conducted studies indicating that "early to bed, early to rise" is unnatural for a teen-age biological clock. In what will be music to every high school student's ears, some schools are starting classes later, to give teens the extra sleep they need to function well and drive alertly.

But most schools still begin classes bright and early, so many students will roll down windows, gulp cups of
coffee and blare Nine Inch Nails to stay awake. Decker described these tactics as "moving the accident farther down the road," because nothing cures sleepiness except sleep.

There has been research on warning gadgets, such as lasers that measure your pupils and sound an alarm if you're near sleep. Rumble strips, grooved pavement strips on the side of the road that make noise if you drive over them, can reduce drive-off-the-road crashes by as much as 50 percent, according to a 1995 study.

But rumble strips and lasers are only Band-aids for the bigger problem, the need for a good night's sleep. Decker said parents need to convince their teens to get enough sleep, and warn them to stop driving and take a nap if they're tired. He also suggested that tired drivers call a taxi, or call parents or friends for a ride.

A 1995 Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep, and 19 percent of those get less than five hours.

Darrel Drobnichcq, program director of a national campaign called "Drive Alert . . . Arrive Alive," said a big problem is that society doesn't value a full night's sleep.

"It has to do with a general attitude. About one-third of adults felt that people can't get eight hours of sleep and be effective at their jobs," he said.

Decker said that "sleep comes across as a 'soft' topic, and people don't recognize the risks of drowsy driving."

"Everyone has done it, but the same tragedies occur when a teen is driving drowsy as when he is driving drunk."

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