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Drowsy Drivers Called a Major Cause of Highway Deaths

December 8, 1994

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the small hours of the morning, three college students in a compact car sped down a long, dark highway, heading home from a club 35 miles from where they lived.

None of the three had been drinking, but all were exhausted. The young women in the back seat and in the passenger seat slipped into slumber, while the driver struggled to remain awake. She failed.

The 19-year-old driver awoke when the small car smashed into a barrier at a road construction site, spun around and rolled over.

Jessica Marone, just two weeks short of 19, was thrown from the back seat and died within hours.

It is a scene repeated hundreds of times annually in the United States. Experts now believe that drowsy drivers may cause as many accidents as drunken drivers, perhaps one-third of all fatal crashes. At least one American in 20 has caused an accident by nodding off at the wheel, specialists said Wednesday at conference on the problem.

″We know now that fatigue can be a deadly killer,″ said John Marone of Yorktown Heights, N.Y., the father of Jessica. ″People throughout the country must be made aware of this killer - the drowsy driver.″

It’s not boring highways or long drives that cause drowsing-and-driving accidents, said Dr. Thomas Roth, a sleep researcher at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Instead, he blamed a hyperactive American lifestyle that allows inadequate time for sleep and a stubborn unwillingness to submit to slumber.

″Sleeplessness and its effects on performance is very much a part of the American landscape,″ said Roth, and this is showing up as thousands of automobile accidents and deaths.

Research presented at the conference found that sleepiness may be a factor in 82 percent of all accidents in which the vehicle runs off the road. In one survey, up to 50 percent of all truck drivers admitted they had fallen asleep at the wheel.

When people were asked if they had ever fallen asleep while driving, Pack said, 20 percent of Americans admitted they had. A New York study put the rate at 25 percent.

Dr. Allan I. Pack of the University of Pennsylvania said a study in Australia found that 30 percent of fatal vehicle crashes on rural highways were caused by drivers who fell asleep.

Statistics on sleep-related accidents are hard to verify because drowsiness is often not included on accident reports and cannot be measured in the bodies of victims. But Pack said that of the 1.3 million single-vehicle crashes in the United States, more than one-fifth occur during the midnight to 6 a.m. period, when sleepy drivers are most common.

About 66 percent of these accidents show that the driver made no attempt to brake or steer back to the road. The lack of corrective action is a prime indicator of a drowsy driver accident, Pack said.

″Accidents caused by sleepy drivers are very common. At least one in 20 drivers in our society have had such accidents,″ said Pack. ″These accidents have a high fatality rate, similar to those attributed to alcohol.″

Dr. Larry J. Findley, who conducted sleep research at the University of Virginia, said about 8 percent of all Americans have excessive drowsiness, usually due to sleep deprivation. An additional 10 percent have a sleep disorder that robs them of restful sleep.

All of this creates driving risks that are more pervasive and common than alcoholism, diabetes or seizure disorders, three other major causes of accidents, Findley said.

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