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Utah campaign targets deadly drowsy driving - Ogden Clinic provided source - Standard-Examiner 9/20/2014

(Standard-Examiner) OGDEN -- So far this year, Utah has experienced 636 automobile crashes due to drowsy driving. Three of those accidents resulted in the loss of life.

Dr. Chris Hammond, an Ogden Clinic neurologist who also specializes in sleep disorders, said losing as much as two to three hours of sleep each night can greatly affect your performance on the road, risking not only your life, but also the lives of those around you.

"The general public needs at least seven and a half to eight hours of sleep each night," Hammond said. "Anything less than six hours is going to start having an effect on your cognitive abilities."

On Tuesday, Hammond teamed up with the Utah Department of Transportation, Zero Fatalities and state Sen. Aaron Osmond in an effort to bring about more awareness of drowsy driving and to introduce Utah's first Drowsy Driving Awareness Week.

Hammond conducted a sleep study on several participants who went more than 24 hours without sleep. Collin Brian was one of those participants.

Brian, 24, of Farmington, had gone 26 hours without sleep before undergoing the study on Tuesday morning. After being hooked up to electrodes that monitored his brainwaves, computer images showed that if he were to get behind the wheel of a car, he would experience poor concentration, slower reaction time, impaired judgment and risk of falling asleep at the wheel.

"This is all about good health and safety," Hammond said. "We know sleep deprivation can lead to all kinds of health problems, but it can also lead to some heavy consequences on the road," Hammond said. "Studies have shown that if you go three nights with as little as four hours of sleep, you are as impaired as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent, which is legally drunk in Utah."

Jason Davis, operations director with UDOT, said he doesn't consider three fatalities out of 636 crashes to be a stroke of luck.

"One fatality is one too many," he said. "We want to get to zero fatalities. Right now, we are averaging about 32 fatalities a year in Utah due to drowsy driving and over 1,000 crashes. We need to be aware of our condition and start asking ourselves if we are alert enough to be on the road."

Just last weekend, Davis said, there was a fatality in Southern Utah as a result of drowsy driving.

"The truck was full of empty Red Bull cans," he said. "We looked at gas receipts to see how long the driver had been on the road and it showed he had left California 12 hours earlier. He was drowsy and drifted off the road. Then he overcorrected and rolled the vehicle. It happens a lot with drowsy driving. The driver drifts off, is unable to stay in their lane and then has a delayed reaction time."

During the 2014 legislative session, Osmond, R-South Jordan, sponsored legislation that will recognize Utah Drowsy Driving Awareness Week. He was inspired to do so, he said, after 16-year-old Ronnie Lynn Thompson died after riding in a car with a drowsy driver.

"These deaths are completely avoidable," Osmond said. "Too many people get behind the wheel of the car and think they're alert enough to drive, even though they've suffered sleep loss and are pretty much completely disabled. We need to bring more attention to this so we stop losing unnecessary lives."

Lorri Hensler, Thompson’s mother, said she will never stop pushing for stricter laws.

"I'm bound and determined to keep fighting against drowsy driving until a law is passed in my son's name" she said. "The only difference between driving drowsy and driving drunk is that when you are driving drunk, your eyes are open. If you are driving impaired, whether it's because you're drinking or texting or sleepy, there should be a price to be paid."

Davis said there are several things a person can do to avoid driving drowsy. They include switching drivers, taking a 10- to 20-minute nap, getting out of the car and stretching for a few minutes, finding a safe place to sleep for the night or asking someone else to drive you to your destination.

Warning signs you may be too drowsy to drive include difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, trouble remembering the last few miles driven, yawning repeatedly, drifting from your lane and feeling restless and irritable. If you think you have a sleep disorder, see your doctor, Hammond said. Sleep loss can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, depression, cardiovascular disease and dementia.