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The next stop is several miles away. The highway is long and monotonous. The terrain is flat. And you only had a few hours of sleep the night before. This insidious scenario is comparable to drunk driving and can easily lead to serious personal injuries and death. Safe driving requires consistent horizontal eye coordination along with the ability to steer and react to other cars and events on the road. A lack of sleep is just like drinking alcohol because reaction time and coordination diminishes. Like a drunk driver, if a sleep-deprived driver fails to recognize that he or she is not fit to run a vehicle, it could spell disaster on the road. There are several studies that confirm this. A 2000 study in Australia concluded that people who drive after staying awake for 17 to 19 hours at a time performed worse on the road than those with a blood alcohol level of .05. The legal limit for driving after drinking in many states is .08. The study found that a lack of sleep leads to stress and anxiety and can influence a person’s decision-making skills in taking unnecessary risks. Sleep deprivation can prove deadly, as shown by a 1994 study that monitored such accidents over a five-year period. Researchers found that more than 1,500 fatalities nationwide were caused in part by driver drowsiness—a conservative number, because police and officials believe many drivers do not admit to drowsiness when they are involved in collisions

More recently, a 2005 finding in the Journal of the American Medical Association focused on medical students undergoing the rigors of training. Those who were working 90 hours a week were 40 percent more likely to make mistakes on the road and react slower than a normally alert driver.

In June 2007 at the 21st annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Minneapolis, researchers detailed the testing of six participants who drove a winding road in a simulated experiment. Their eye movements were monitored using a dashboard mounted eye tracker, and steering wheel movement was monitored through a precision potentiometer attached to the steering column. The results clearly showed acute and chronic reductions in the degree of steering wheel coordination and eye movements.

Unfortunately, studies do not do justice to the human toll of car accidents that are caused by sleep deprivation.

Disaster is what happened to Grant Baker, who was a hard-working, motivated and outgoing college student, when his promising life came to a screeching halt on May 6, 2001. Grant a student at Lewis and Clark College, was the passenger in a 1989 Toyota Camry, when his college classmate, Cynthia Smyth, fell asleep at the wheel during a warm afternoon on I-84 in Eastern Oregon.

Both Baker and Smyth, exhausted after final exams, were heading home for summer vacation. They agreed to share driving responsibility during the planned trek, using the Camry, which belonged to Cynthia’s father. They planned that one would sleep while the other drove.

The 1998 Toyota was equipped with an automatic shoulder belt and a manual lap belt, which is easy to overlook. That’s the main reason this design was discontinued. In Grant’s case, the presence of the automatic shoulder restraint in an unfamiliar car led him to forget to secure the lap belt after stopping for gas shortly before the crash.

Back on the freeway, while Grant was asleep and reclined in the passenger seat, Cynthia fought off fatigue and determinedly kept driving. Cruising at 70 mph, her car drifted from the right lane, over the left lane and into the median. Grant was not even awake to see what was about to happen.

The left front tire plowed into soft dirt, causing the Toyota to trip. A computerized reconstruction showed the car flipped several times, ejecting Grant and Cynthia before it came to a rest on its wheels. Grant’s spinal cord was severed. Grant, a robust, active and motivated young man, who frequently hiked, camped and snowboarded–and went on a backpacking trip just two weeks before–was suddenly a C 5-6 quadriplegic.

Sleep depravation is something that we take for granted on the road. Yet it leads to car accidents that shatter lives. These types of preventative accidents are as serious as crashes caused by drunk drivers.

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Richard Alexander