Online Extra: The Deadly Dangers of Drowsy Driving
When Thomas M. Callaghy climbed into his car on April 1, 2001, he thought he was in fine shape to drive. Callaghy, a professor of international politics at the University of Pennsylvania, had just spent a restful weekend at a dog show in Virginia Beach, Va., with his wife, Jane, and their three Shetland sheep dogs. But Callaghy hadn't been sleeping much in the weeks leading up to that weekend retreat. What with teaching two courses, as well as running a research institute, he rarely managed more than six hours of shuteye a night.
His lack of sleep caught up with him just as he was setting out on the five-hour drive home from the dog show. As a light drizzle fell along the deserted two-lane highway, Callaghy started to feel drowsy. Before he had a chance to pull over and ask Jane to drive, he fell asleep and crashed into a line of trees at the side of the road.
When rescue crews arrived, he recalls, "I screamed to them to get my wife out of the car." But he had already reached over to feel for her pulse, and he knew the awful truth: She had died instantly. Callaghy walked away with a banged-up knee. The dogs were unharmed. "It was obscenely horrible," says Callaghy, 57. "I had accumulated a sleep debt -- there's no denying that. I'm directly responsible."
Fatigue is one of the biggest dangers facing drivers today. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that drowsy drivers cause 70,000 injury crashes per year -- 1,550 of them fatal. Studies show that someone who has been awake for 24 hours has the same mental acuity as they would if they had a blood-alcohol level of 0.1, making them legally drunk in most states.
Yet more than half of adult drivers readily admit in surveys that they often drive drowsy. Callaghy understands the cavalier attitude road warriors have toward getting behind the wheel when they haven't spent enough time in bed. He has been there. "We drive, we get sleepy, and we think we'll get through it because we have before," he says. "That's what kills."
Fatigue is proving to be a menace not only on the roads, but also in the skies. In August, 1997, 228 people were killed when Korean Air Flight 801 slammed into a mountain in Guam. Investigators concluded that the severely fatigued pilot, who was flying in heavy rain, lost track of where he was. In June, 2002, a bus driver carrying tourists from Niagara Falls fell asleep and plowed into a guardrail on the New York State Thruway, killing five people. The driver had spent the previous two nights gambling.
While measures to prevent weary pilots from nodding off in the cockpit may be hard to come by, efforts to keep drowsy drivers off the road seem to be gaining steam. In August, New Jersey became the first state to pass a law stipulating that people who cause fatal crashes can be charged with vehicular homicide if it can be proven they were awake for 24 hours or more before they took to the road. It's known as "Maggie's Law," after a 20-year-old woman who was killed in 1997 after a sleeping driver careened across three lanes of traffic and hit her car head-on. A similar law is being debated in New York.
As for Callaghy, he's channeling his grief into a grassroots effort to raise awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving. His organization, Live to Run Again (livetorunagain.org), distributes educational materials and lobbies federal lawmakers to consider the dangers of drowsy driving when they draft legislation related to road safety. And Callaghy has been traveling around the country, preaching the importance of good sleeping -- and drivingohabits.
He makes the time for a full eight hours of slumber as often as he can. He always carries two 20-ounce bottles of caffeinated soda with him, in case he needs a lift before taking the wheel. And he listens to books on tape in the car, because he finds that getting wrapped up in an engrossing story helps him stay alert. Most important, he says, "I pull over if I get sleepy."
The horror of his accident always lingers in the back of his mind, but Callaghy takes comfort in the knowledge that telling his story may help prevent sleep-deprived drivers from causing more unnecessary deaths. "Drowsy driving is a much bigger issue than the public thinks it is," he says. "It's a huge problem. And it's correctable."
By Arlene Weintraub in Los Angeles