Everybody knows that missing sleep can make you tired and grumpy. And there are plenty of health problems that come with sleep deprivation too. But there are some risks that most of us never think about – risks that could cost you your life.

1. Falling Asleep at the Wheel

One out of five motor vehicle accidents is related to drivers who are just too tired to drive

– Dr Charles A. Czeisler

We are bombarded with warnings, TV spots, posters, and road stops to prevent drunk driving. But drowsy driving is even more deadly. In fact, fatigue-related accidents are the top cause of fatal-to-driver truck crashes in the US. That’s more than alcohol and drugs combined. According to the AAA, sleepiness is the cause of one in six deadly traffic accidents, and one in eight car crashes requiring hospitalization.

Driving without proper sleep impairs a drivers ability to concentrate, to observe potential hazards, and to simply stay awake. What is scariest about the issue is how many people drive without enough sleep.

A National Sleep Foundation survey showed that 60% of adult drivers admit that they have driven while feeling drowsy. Of those, about one third has actually fallen asleep while driving. In the US, this is upwards of 100 million people.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes are caused by driver fatigue every year. However, the number may be even higher. A study by the Institute of Medicine estimates that drowsy-driving is accountable for 20% of road accidents. Going by that figure, the number of drowsy driving accidents is closer to one million.

It’s not just you that needs to be awake on the road – any of the strangers you share the road with could be driving sleep deprived – putting their life, and yours, at risk.

Every hour someone is killed in a drowsy-driving related crash

– Dr Charles A. Czeisler

2. Our Sleep Deprived Doctors

The ER doc, up all hours tending to the wounded. Thanks to TV and movies, the image is a familiar one. And accurate too – many doctors work incredibly long hours without rest. But these doctors are only human, and after so long without sleep, mistakes are bound to happen. In a hospital, the results can be devastating.

Many doctors, but particularly interns, have been known to work 18, 24, even 36 hours in a single stretch. Without proper sleep, these people can become incredibly fatigued, with associated loss of judgment, focus, and alertness.

According to the Institutes of Medicine, over one million injuries and 50,000-100,000 deaths caused by medical errors per year can be attributed to lack of sleep.

However, this issue is beginning to get some attention. A 2004 study by Dr. Charles Czeisler of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School suggested limiting a doctor’s single shift to no more than 16 hours and work week to no more than 80 hours. They estimated that this control of working hours would reduce the number of medical errors by close to 40%. In 2003, regulations were passed to enforce this 80 hour cap.

3. Explosions, Wrecks, and Disasters

Drowsy driving and over-tired doctors can have serious dangers to those around them, but effects are relatively limited in scope. But what if the tired person isn’t just behind the wheel or the scalpel, but working a panel at a nuclear power plant?

Investigations have revealed that sleep deprivation was a contributing factor to:

1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island
1986 Chernobyl disaster
Grounding of Exxon Valdez
Explosion of Challenger shuttle
1988 shut down of Peach Bottom Nuclear reactor
Some of these incidents were close calls, others full-blown disasters. But consider the fact that many other people are working in high-pressure jobs, with little sleep. And they may not even know that they are suffering.

The trap of sleep deprivation is not just in its effects, but in how it is perceived.

It’s as if the first part of your brain that turns off with sleep deprivation is the little part that is able to actually look and see and say, “Oh, I’m not performing so well.”

-Dr. Robert Stickgold

Sleep deprived people don’t know always they are deprived. In some studies of sleep deprivation, people report early on that they are not as alert. But, after three or four days, they see themselves as getting used to it, and self-diagnose as back to normal. But, when put to the test and given objective assessments of their abilities, their performance has dropped significantly. They are tired and failing, but they don’t know it.


About the Author Harold Garza

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