Driving drowsy? UDOT warns it’s as dangerous as driving drunk — and caused 1,299 wrecks in Utah in past year

Millcreek • Like too many drivers on summer road trips, Chris Draper didn’t get much sleep before he left on an overnight journey through central Nevada toward Utah. About dawn, he was drowsy.

“I had the air conditioning blasting at me,” he remembers. His head nodded and startled him, “but I said, ‘I can keep going. I’m OK,’” and slapped himself in the face and turned up the radio.

The next think he remembers is waking up as a nearby truck blared its horn as Draper was off the road and headed for a wall. He overcorrected “and flipped five or six times,” mangling his car. He survived thanks to a seat belt.

Now, 11 years later, he says, “I never ever drive drowsy.”

The Utah Department of Transportation featured Draper at an event Thursday at St. Mark’s Hospital urging drivers to guard against drowsy driving — which caused at least 1,299 collisions in Utah in the past 12 months through June, and 10 deaths.

Driving drowsy “is just as bad as driving drunk,” said Kris Mitchell, trauma medical director at St. Mark’s. “The tired brain is very similar to a drunk brain, to be quite honest.”

In fact, “If you just skip two hours of [regular] sleep and get behind the wheel, your brain actually acts like you're under the influence of alcohol,” he said.

If a driver goes 18 hours without sleep, Mitchell says, “It’s like a 0.5 [blood alcohol content], which is essentially the legal limit here in the state of Utah. If you stay up a full 24 hours, it’s like being at a 1.0 percent alcohol in your system, which is well over the legal limit in any state.”

UDOT spokesman John Gleason adds that virtually all drivers likely have driven drowsy at one time or another — and probably don’t realize the extreme danger.

“Not all of us drink. Hopefully none of us drink and drive,” he said. “But drowsy driving really affects every one of us” and is as dangerous.

So officials offered plenty of advice on how to better avoid it.

“The No. 1 thing is get well rested. Get a full night’s sleep before you’re going to make a long road trip,” Mitchell said.

Gleason said many people fail to do that as they try to finish up loose ends at work before a trip, are busy packing, or leave late at night or early in the morning to squeeze in extra vacation time. “Getting a good night’s sleep should be considered part of the preparation for a trip,” he said.

Mitchell also advises taking road trips “when you are normally awake, and not when you are normally sleeping. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to drive overnight when they’re normally awake during the day.”

Officials also advise pulling over immediately when drivers notice any sign of fatigue or drowsiness.

“I’m often asked, ‘How do I know if I’m too tired to drive?’ If you are asking yourself that question, the answer is: pull over,” Gleason said.

Mitchell suggest that with any signs of fatigue, “pull over and take a power nap. There are plenty of rest stops along the way. Actually, a 15- to 20-minute power nap is an essential key factor to help prevent crashes if you’re starting to feel drowsy.”

Gleason suggests stopping every 90 minutes to two hours to stretch legs.

And Mitchell said drivers should not drive more than eight to 10 hours in a day “unless you are used to it, and most people are not.”

If more than one driver is in the car, “share the driving,” Gleason adds.

He also stresses thata lot of the tricks that people use to try to stay awake just don’t work,” from turning up the radio to slapping themselves and drinking caffeine. “So pull over and get some rest.”

Draper said he learned that hard away about what can happen when driving drowsy. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. So now when he notices any sign of drowsiness, “I don’t care where I am, I pull over on the side of the freeway, roll up my windows and take a nap.”