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Commentary: Don't drive fatigued during the holidays

By 2nd Lt. Alicia Howard | New York National Guard | November 20, 2017

FORT RUCKER, Ala. --

We've all experienced what it feels like to drive fatigued. We've made the mistake of working all day and then taking off on a long drive to be with family or friends during a holiday or vacation.

I often did that when I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. On Thursday afternoons, we would be released about 3 p.m. after Sergeant's Time Training. I would hop into my vehicle, which I'd already packed, and set off on an eight-hour-plus drive to Joplin, Missouri.

Normally, I could easily make this trip after a good night's rest; however, leaving immediately after work was a different story. While the excitement was enough to keep me awake for the first three hours, around the fourth hour I would begin to experience the warning signs of drowsiness and fatigue. I would find myself having difficulty focusing, forgetting the last few miles of driving, yawning repeatedly and jerking my vehicle back into my lane.

And weather could also make these trips take longer. On one particular trip, I was driving through Oklahoma when I encountered a blinding snowstorm that forced me to slow to less than 30 mph. I was frustrated because I realized it was going to take much longer than normal to reach Joplin. But when I tried speeding up, I'd begin sliding on the road. I saw the consequences of that firsthand when a vehicle in front of me ran off the road into a ditch. I stopped to make sure the individual was OK. He was fine and I called a wrecker to come and pull him out. I knew at that point it was no use trying to drive any farther. It just wasn't worth getting into an accident.

I knew the next town was only a few minutes away. I called my family and told them I was staying there overnight because the weather was too bad to drive. Had I tried, it would've taken me even more time to get to Joplin or I could've ended up in a bad accident. As it turned out, the next morning was beautiful and the roads were clear. I left early enough to arrive at the hotel in Joplin just after my family had gotten out of bed. We were still able to have breakfast that morning and spend an enjoyable holiday together before I had to be back at Fort Hood.

I learned my lesson on that trip and never again tried to drive it immediately after getting off from work. I now make sure I have a full night's rest before hitting the road and always check the weather forecast to make sure driving conditions will be favorable.

When I look back on it, it seems silly that I took such risks. I would never let any of my Soldiers make the same trip without first getting adequate rest. My leadership classes have taught me to apply risk management in everything I do, on or off duty. After all, accidents don't discriminate when it comes to duty status.

Snoozing and Losing

NATIONAL SAFETY COUNCIL
www.nsc.org

Sleepiness slows reaction time, decreases awareness, impairs judgment and can be fatal when driving. The drivers at highest risk are third-shift workers, people who drive a substantial number of miles each day, those with unrecognized sleep disorders and those prescribed medication with sedatives. Recognize the symptoms of fatigue:

• Eyes closing or going out of focus

• Persistent yawning

• Irritability, restlessness and impatience

• Wandering or disconnected thoughts

• Inability to remember driving the last few miles

• Drifting between lanes or onto the shoulder

• Abnormal speed, tailgating or failure to obey traffic signs

• Back tension, burning eyes, shallow breathing or inattentiveness

Safety tips

• Maintain a regular sleep schedule that allows adequate rest.

• When the signs of fatigue begin to show, get off the road. Take a short nap in a well-lit area. Do not simply stop on the side of the road.

• Avoid driving between midnight and 6 a.m.

When planning long trips

• Share driving responsibilities with a companion.

• Begin the trip early in the day.

• Keep the temperature cool in the car.

• Stop every 100 miles or two hours to get out of the car and walk around; exercise helps to combat fatigue.

• Stop for light meals and snacks.

• Drive with your head up, shoulders back and legs flexed at about a 45-degree angle.

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