The University Record, December 11, 2000

Late nights, long drives can make holiday driving deadly

By Valerie Gliem
Health System Public Relations

With people on the roads more during the holiday season, the Health System is joining the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) and the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety to remind sleepy drivers that their drowsiness can turn a joyous time into tragedy in just a few seconds. College students driving home for the holidays may face a particular risk, especially if they’ve been sacrificing sleep for studying, the organizations say.

“Holidays are a dangerous time for sleep-related accidents because people are not getting a lot of sleep,” says Ronald D. Chervin, assistant professor of neurology and director of the University’s

Michael S. Aldrich Sleep Disorders Laboratory. “They stretch the time at which they usually go to bed and don’t always compensate in the morning. In addition, even if they do devote enough hours to sleep, they may alter the times at which they sleep in a way that can contribute to sleepiness. The last factor, of course, is alcohol.”

Even travelers who fly or take other forms of transportation can find themselves in trouble if they drive the last leg of their trip. “If people don’t get a good night’s sleep before they travel and they don’t nap during the first part of their journey, they’ll arrive tired, get into a car and be driving drowsy to their destination. That can be dangerous,” says Richard L. Gelula, executive director of NSF.

Drivers who stay up late to party, have a few drinks and then set out on the road put themselves at a greatly increased risk, warns David Willis, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Alcohol increases the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel,” Willis says. “When you’re really tired, one drink feels like four or five. Driving home from a party can pose extra danger because you combine alcohol with fatigue.”

Even when alcohol is not in the picture, the risks associated with drinking and driving can be present in sleepy drivers. “Recent research has indicated that driving sleepy puts the driver at similar risk to driving drunk,” Chervin says.

The amount of sleep needed varies by individual but it is a deceptively simple formula, Chervin says. “You need enough to feel alert each day,” he explains. Generally, an adult needs an average of eight to nine hours of sleep.

To encourage a safe holiday season, NSF urges colleges and universities as well as parents of college students to join its “Drive Alert*Arrive Alive”

campaign and help spread the word about the dangers of drowsy driving. “Parents should get an idea of the schedule their college student has been keeping, and try to ensure their child gets a good night’s sleep and is well rested before driving—even if it means delaying the trip for a day,” Gelula says.

Tips for holiday driving

  • Get a good night’s sleep before your trip—at least eight hours for adults and 8.5–9.25 hours for teens.

  • Drive long trips with a passenger who stays awake to talk to the driver.

  • Schedule regular stops, every 100 miles or two hours.

  • Avoid alcohol and medications that may impair performance.

  • When driving, recognize signs of fatigue that include not remembering the last few miles driven; drifting from lane to lane or hitting rumble strips; repeated yawning, difficulty focusing, keeping your eyes open or your head up; tailgating; or missing traffic signs.

    “Rolling down the windows and turning on the radio may not keep you awake,” Chervin says. “Those may not be bad things to do, but don’t count on them to work.”

    Taking a power nap can help restore alertness. If you are feeling drowsy:

  • Pull off into a safe area and take a brief nap (15–45 minutes).

  • Drink a caffeinated beverage to promote short-term alertness (it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream).

  • Walk around or do a few exercises to get rid of grogginess.

    For information on sleep-related problems, visit the Web at For information about the “Drive Alert*Arrive Alive” campaign, drowsy driving and how to prevent it, visit the Web site at To take a sleep quiz or order a copy of the AAA Foundation’s “Wake UP!” brochure, go to on the Web.