Driving safety tips

With the hectic pace of today, you might be getting so run down you're too tired to drive safely. That could turn your festive season into a tragedy.

Many South Africans are sleep-deprived throughout the year, and it can get worse around Christmas. There are a number of things you need to check to make sure you're alert enough to drive, says Darrel Drobnich, national director of the US-based Sleep Foundation's Drive Alert ... Arrive Alive campaign.

The obvious answer is to get more sleep. But, Drobnich says, if that's not possible, there are other factors you can control. Stay away from any alcohol. Drobnich says studies show that if you've had just four hours of sleep, one beer can have the impact of six.

Long drives, driving at night or driving by yourself all put you at risk for falling asleep behind the wheel. And don't think you can beat the need for sleep by driving with your window down and your radio turned up loud.

"I've heard them all, from chewing ice to chewing sunflower seeds to people taking off a shoe and sticking a foot out the window," Drobnich says.

"That might keep you awake for a little while longer, but it's not going to make you more alert. And the point is you don't have to fall asleep at the wheel to be dangerous because fatigue itself is an impairment," he says. It slows your reaction time, hurts your vision and judgment and impairs your cognitive reasoning. "So it does mimic alcohol in many ways," he says.

That short drive home from a late-night party can be dangerous, too, says Stephanie Faul, communications director, AA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

"You're at a party and there's loud music, friends are talking and you're having a good time. It's a very stimulating environment, so you feel very alert. And then you get in your car and drive home and it's dark, it's relatively quiet," and you find yourself getting drowsy, she says.

She suggests you make an honest appraisal of your alertness before you head home from a party. If you decide you are tired, ask your host or hostess if you can take a short nap before you leave. Even a 20-minute nap can make you more alert, Faul says.

She offers other suggestions. Be aware of road conditions. And if your vehicle has anti-lock brakes, go to an empty parking lot and practice with them so you know how they'll respond in an emergency.

"Go about 10 to 20 kilometres an hour, and jam on the brakes and see what happens. And practice steering so you get a feel for it," Faul says. What To Do

According to the sleep foundation 2000 Omnibus Sleep in America survey, 51 percent of all adults surveyed report driving a car or other vehicle while feeling drowsy in the prior year, while 17 percent report actually falling asleep at the wheel.

Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation and the American AA Foundation for Traffic Safety:

  • Get a good night's rest before a long trip -- at least 8 hours for adults and 8.5 to 9.25 hours for teens.
  • On long trips, take a passenger who stays awake to talk to the driver.
  • Schedule regular stops - every 150 kilometres or 2 hours.
  • Avoid alcohol or medications that may impair you.
  • Recognise signs of fatigue -- drifting from your lane, hitting rumble strips, repeated yawning, trouble keeping your eyes open, tailgating or missing road signs.
  • If you are tired, pull into a rest area and sleep for 15 to 45 minutes.
  • Drink coffee -- but remember it takes about 30 minutes for the caffeine to get into your bloodstream.
  • Walk around and do a few exercises.

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