Drowsy Driving: How We Can Curb 6,000 Fatal Crashes Every Year

1 year ago

Healthy Smiles by Rita Tempel, DDS, Diplomate, ABDSM – This column is published in the November 21, 2019 Gettysburg Times

Today I’m focusing on topics related to driving. Yes, you read that correctly! I hope you find the connections between dental health and driving as eye-opening as I do.

With the holidays approaching, there will be plenty of parties and celebrations. Many of us know about the dangers of driving while under the influence of alcohol, and many of us know about the importance of utilizing a designated driver.

What many people don’t realize is that driving while drowsy is also a national epidemic. As many as 6,000 fatal accidents happen every year due to people falling asleep behind the wheel. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Some additional shocking statistics about drowsy driving:

  • One in every 25 adult drivers report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes and 44,000 injuries in 2013.
  • At least 20% of all motor vehicle accidents are caused by sleepy drivers.

Why are so many people driving while drowsy? The CDC believes there are four major reasons for drowsy driving:

  • Commercial drivers who work long shifts while operating tow trucks, tractor trailers and buses
  • People who work unusual work shifts such as overnight shifts
  • Drivers who have untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea
  • Drivers who are using medications that make them sleepy

Let’s focus in on the third reason—drivers who have untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. The latest studies indicate more than 70 million Americans are affected by a sleep disorder such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea—a disorder which causes a person to briefly stop breathing when asleep.

Did you know: You spend a third of your life sleeping! But if you have sleep apnea which is untreated, you could be shortening your life, and the lives of innocent nearby motorists or passengers, by driving while drowsy.

If you’re not sleeping well, or if a partner says you snore, you may have sleep apnea. So how is it diagnosed? It requires a diagnosis from a physician, first. CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure), in the form of a machine and mask, is considered the golden standard for treatment.

However, many patients cannot tolerate CPAP. If this is the case, then a sleep-qualified dentist such as myself can custom-fit patients with an oral appliance which is set at a specific position. There is a high compliance rate with oral appliances—meaning, most patients willingly, happily, wear them and receive effective treatment and results. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that these devices are made by a Qualified Sleep Dentist or better yet, a Diplomate of the American Board of Dental Sleep medicine. 

I urge you to talk to your doctor about sleep apnea if you have experienced any of the warning signs of drowsy driving:

  • Frequent yawning or blinking while driving
  • Difficulty remembering the past few miles you’ve driven
  • Missing your exit
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Dozing off while stopped in traffic or at a traffic light

Ultimately, drowsy driving means drivers are not devoting their full attention to conditions on roadways, their reaction times are lessened especially during braking or steering, drivers aren’t able to make the best decisions, and accidents—including fatal accidents—are rising.

There is an entire health community here to help combat this epidemic—please reach out and encourage your friends and family to reach out and seek a diagnosis and treatment for sleep apnea.

Dr. Rita Tempel is a Diplomate of the American Board of Dental Sleep Medicine and runs a sister company, Sweet Dreams Gettysburg, out of her cosmetic and family dental practice Gettysburg Smiles,  2018 York Road, Gettysburg.

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