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Driving sleep deprived can have same effects as drunk driving, expert says

Tuesday - 6/10/2014, 9:32am  ET

sleeptime.jpg
Just like drugs or alcohol, a lack of sleep can be fatal when driving. (Thinkstock)

The dangers of driver fatigue

Dr. Neal Maru, a neurologist and sleep medicine special with Integrated Sleep Services of Northern Virginia, discusses sleep needs.

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WASHINGTON -- A sleep expert is pointing to the dangers that can come from drowsy driving after a crash involving a sleep-deprived truck driver led to the death of one comedian and injured others, including actor Tracy Morgan.

Dr. Neal Maru, a neurologist and sleep medicine special with Integrated Sleep Services of Northern Virginia in Alexandria, Virginia, says not devoting enough time to sleep can be dangerous to long-term health and to others as well -- especially on the roads.

"The more sleep deprived we are, the more our judgement is impaired. And when our judgement is impaired, the less likely we are going to be able to recognize signs that we are sleepy," Maru says.

Wal-Mart truck driver Kevin Roper had not sleep for more than 24 hours before he plowed into the back of Morgan's limo bus about 1 a.m. on Saturday. James "Jimmy Mack" McNair died in the crash.

Going 24 hours with no sleep is about the equivalent of having a 0.1 blood alcohol level, Maru says. The legal limit is 0.08.

"We still have to make sure our roads are safe and our community is safe, so getting an adequate amount of sleep is incredibly important," Maru says.

While Maru says driving while sleep deprived is a serious concern, making it a criminal offense -- such as with driving under the influence of alcohol -- would be too difficult to regulate.

"It's virtually ... impossible to determine whether or not somebody is sleep deprived and the extent that they are sleep deprived when they are driving," he says.

Drowsy driving is a serious problem, Maru says. There are more than 100,000 car accidents and more than 1,500 deaths annually that are attributed to drowsy driving, he adds.

Truck drivers and other shift workers often have to adapt to working overnight hours or having little sleep.

"Ultimately, we are meant to sleep at night and be awake during the day," says Maru, who adds that average adults need between 7 1/2 and 8 1/2 hours of sleep each night.

Researchers are looking at the effects of people trying to chip away at their sleep debt. In the end, quality sleep can be the best way to achieve optimal health, Maru says.

"It is possible to catch up on sleep, but we don't' know how much of that catching up is possible and how much you need to do to fully catch up."

To prevent drowsy driving, Maru offers the following tips:

  • Get adequate sleep before hitting the road.

  • Have a plan to stop for breaks.

  • If you get into a situation where you are tired, have extra caffeine on hand to help you get to a safe place to stop.

  • Break up the drive by doing several hours and then stopping or splitting a trip into more than one day.

  • Look for warning signs such as yawning or drifting into other lanes.

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