That careless driver near you just might be falling asleep

first_imgExhausted from hundreds of sleepless nights, Gary Boyer sometimes couldn’t recall making the three-mile drive from his home in Winnetka to his job in Woodland Hills. Waking up about 105 times an hour – about every 30 seconds – will do that to a person. Boyer didn’t realize he suffered from sleep apnea, a disorder in which the tongue blocks the throat until the body jostles itself awake to breathe again. He also didn’t realize he was one of the estimated 103 million drivers a year who fall asleep behind the wheel. “There were times I would get to work and not remember how I got there. I would fall asleep,” said Boyer, 55, who has since received medical treatment for his condition. “I wouldn’t remember if I ran red lights.” Whether it comes from sleep disorders or putting in too many hours at the office, the combination of fatigue and driving results in an about 100,000 crashes, 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s not surprising that people drive drowsy. Americans averaged nine hours of sleep a night in 1900, but now average only seven. Losing four hours of sleep is the equivalent of having a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent, according to a sleep disorder clinic at Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth, N.J. California law makes it a misdemeanor to drive with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent. While there’s no test to measure driver drowsiness the way that breathalizers check for alcohol, doctors must report the names of patients suffering from disorders that involve lapses of consciousness, including sleep apnea and narcolepsy. In 2006, the state Department of Motor Vehicles received 10,843 such reports. Depending on the type and severity of the condition, a driver may be put on probation or the license may be revoked, officials said. For the rest of us who are simply worn out from our lifestyles, it’s more likely we’ll zonk out while driving in remote areas where there’s little stimulation beyond the long road ahead. Ironically, the stop-and-go driving in Los Angeles keeps motorists more alert, said California Highway Patrol Officer Leland Tang. “It’ll keep you on your toes,” Tang said. So for once, all this hectic traffic pays off. But not entirely. About 50 of the 18,000 car crashes in the San Fernando Valley each year are the result of driver fatigue, said Detective William Bustos, assigned to the Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Traffic Division. For drivers at risk of falling asleep behind the wheel, Bustos recommends using car pools or public transportation as alternatives. For those working night shifts, driving trucks or cabs, the risk of falling asleep on the road is a battle fought more frequently. It’s 3 a.m. when Mary Ullrich starts her shift at Bea’s Bakery in Tarzana. Although she relies on strong coffee for energy at that early hour, she found something else that helps much more with the early-morning drive: She moved a block away from work. Still, Ullrich said working the night shift is always a struggle. “After a while you get used to it, but your body never really regulates to it,” Ullrich said. “But you do it.” For Boyer, the years of lethargy took a grinding toll on his life. After sleep studies determined he was waking up more than 100 times an hour, Boyer was diagnosed with sleep apnea and underwent throat surgery. The operations provided some relief, but he still awoke about 58 times an hour. He visited Dr. Bryan Keropian, a Tarzana dentist who fitted him with a mouthpiece that Boyer wears at night to restrain his tongue. Boyer said he has finally found his peace. “I wake up refreshed,” Boyer said. “I can drive anywhere now.” Have you ever fallen asleep behind the wheel? How did you overcome this? Tell our transportation blog at [email protected] (818) 713-3746160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img

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