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Published: 2003/08/29
by Rachel Seeger

Crossing the Center Line: Tips for Staying Safe on the Roads During the Festival Season

[Editor's note: We ran a version of this essay in our All About IT Sunday paper but we felt this was information worth presenting on-line given the festivals looming over Labor Day weekend and onward.]

The summer months find many of us packing up the car or RV and taking to the highway for music festivals and concerts across the country. Every year, lives are taken or altered forever by motor vehicle crashes that result from drowsy driving.

On July 9, 2002, three young women were on a 12-hour drive from Quincy, CA to Flagstaff, AZ returning from the High Sierra Music Festival. Their car went off the road about 100 miles west of Flagstaff, at approximately 5:00am, on Interstate 40. Jennifer Marie Benton was tossed from the vehicle and killed. Two others, Jodie Delaney and Jackie Birdsell, were critically injured and taken to Flagstaff Medical Center. In response to this incident, friends created the "Operation Drive Safe – Driving for Jennifer" campaign ( to educate others about safety issues related to sleep depravation, fatigue, drinking and driving. Sadly, yet another young life was taken this week following the High Sierra Music Festival under similar circumstances.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of injury death in the United States for people aged 1-34. In 1997, nearly 42,000 people died on the nation’s roads and highways, and another 3.5 million suffered nonfatal injuries. Of the crashes that were reported by the police, drowsiness is the principal causative factor in about 100,000 crashes each year, according to estimates by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA estimates that about 4% of all fatal motor vehicle crashes each year are caused by driver drowsiness. However, the report warns that these estimates may be low due to inaccurate reporting methods for identifying a driver’s state of alertness and the fact that most drivers involved in accidents tend to downplay their driving condition to avoid blame.

The motor vehicle crash that took Jennifer Benton’s life was caused by fatigue and drowsiness. Drowsiness can turn celebration into tragedy in just a few seconds. Those traveling home following concerts and festivals are at particular risk, especially if they’ve been sacrificing sleep during late night sets of music, have had a few drinks, and then set out on the road. Alcohol increases the risk of falling asleep behind the wheel. According to David Willis, president of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, "When you’re very tired, one drink feels like four or five. Driving is especially dangerous because you combine alcohol with fatigue." Fatigue is a key risk factor for crashes, slowing perception and response time.

Motor vehicle crashes are not "accidents" because they are preventable. Sleep experts recommend at least eight hours of sleep a night in order to function properly. More than half of adult drivers admitted to driving while drowsy and younger drivers (18-29) were more likely to drive drowsy than other age groups, reported a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation. The study also found that nearly one-quarter of young drivers, including college students and young workers, reported falling asleep at the wheel during the past year. Younger drivers were also more likely to drive faster when they felt drowsy, adding to their danger.

The National Sleep Foundation and the AAA Foundation offer the following tips for safe driving:

- Get a good night’s sleep before setting off on a long trip — at least 8 hours. Make sure that you are properly awake before setting off. Research shows that individuals who have had less sleep than usual the night before a journey experience high levels of sleepiness when driving on the following day, especially in the afternoon. – Prepare for your journey in advance. Carry out any necessary packing of the car the night before you travel so you can begin the journey in a more relaxed frame of mind. – Don’t drive at night if you can avoid it. Internal biological "clocks" encourage most people to be awake in the daytime and to sleep at night and they will find it difficult to concentrate and maintain alertness between midnight and 7am. – Turning up the radio and rolling down the window does NOT keep you awake. The only cure for drowsiness is sleep. On long trips take along a passenger who stays awake to talk to the driver. – Schedule regular stops, every 100 miles or 2 hours. Swap drivers if possible. – Avoid alcohol and medications that may impair performance. – Recognize signs of fatigue: Drifting from your lane, hitting rumble strips, repeated yawning, difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open, tailgating or missing road signs. – Plan long trips carefully so that you allow plenty of breaks where you can relax and maybe have some food and drink. Heavy meals and certain foods, such as turkey, warm milk and bananas – induce sleep.

Taking a power nap can help restore alertness. If you are feeling drowsy: – Pull off into a safe area and take a brief nap (15-45 minutes). – Drink a caffeinated beverage to promote short-term alertness (remember: it takes about 30 minutes for caffeine to enter the bloodstream). – Walk around or do a few exercises to get rid of grogginess. – Set the cars ventilation controls so that they draw in cold, fresh air from the outside. Aim the air at your face. Winding down your car windows is not as effective and neither action will have a direct result on tiredness.

For more information about drowsy driving, and how to prevent it, visit the National Sleep Foundation website, Operation Drive Safe – Driving for Jennifer and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Rachel Seeger is a Public Affairs Specialist with the US Department of Health and Human Services. She began her federal career as a 1993 Presidential Management Intern at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where she was a legislative policy analyst working on traffic safety issues. In 1993, she received her Masters in Public Administration from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, CA. She may be reached for comment at

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