Staying Awake Behind the Wheel

Suggested lead: The National Transportation Safety Board says its tests show a sleepy driver can be just as dangerous as a drunk driver. Tom Britt has more.

Bill Wohlgemuth of Duke University Medical Center's sleep disorders clinic specializes not only in the causes of sleep deprivation, but also the effects. He says most of us don't consciously consider that when we drive, we are behind the wheel of a complex machine, and are constantly making decisions and maneuvers as conditions change in our path.

"You need to have your wits about you and be quick-thinking, and that is dulled when you're not sleeping. Reaction time is slowed. Vigilance, or being able to pay attention for long periods of time, is impaired."

Wohlgemuth says the only cure for a lack of sleep is to sleep. He says a blast of cold air through an open car window has not been shown to help. About the only thing that has proven successful is caffeine, and then only for about an hour. After that, he says, you need another cup of coffee, or you could stop and take a nap. Better yet, Wohlgemuth says, get plenty of sleep before you start your trip. I'm Tom Britt.

Wohlgemuth says drivers can fall asleep at the wheel without even realizing it.

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"We can go into states that are called 'micro-sleeps,' which may be just five to 10 seconds, where your brain goes to sleep. And if you're traveling at 60 miles an hour down the road, five or 10 seconds is a significant amount of ground to cover."