If you work graveyard shifts and have to drive your own car on the way home during daytime, then you might want to be more cautious as you might literally be an accident waiting to happen.

A new report in the United States revealed that drowsy drivers just coming off their night shifts are at a significantly higher risk of getting into car crashes than other drivers.

Researchers in Boston conducted a study involving 16 employees who work during the night and only had an average of 7.6 hours of shuteye. The team used an electroencephalogram to record the brain activity on participants when they only had brief hours of sleep.

During two test drives that lasted for two hours, six of the drowsy participants had almost gotten into car crashes on a closed driving track, while seven had stopped the test for safety reasons. Within the first 15 minutes of the driving session, researchers noticed that sleep-related impairment was evident.

Meanwhile, when the same participants had a full night's sleep before completing the test, no near-crashes had occurred, researchers said.

Drowsy Driving in Daylight is Dangerous

Dr. Charles Czeisler, the co-author of the study which is featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said that what was unique about the study was that the test drives were performed during daytime.

Despite the clear and bright lighting, the risk for near-car crashes increased, he said.

"It reveals just how dangerous it is to drive home after working all night," said Czeisler, adding that the same participants who almost got into car crashes weren't dangerous drivers if they had just gotten better sleep.

Dr. Michael Lee, the study's lead author, said that even veteran graveyard shift workers were susceptible to the risks associated with drowsy driving.

Lee said their reactions were similar to the behaviors observed in drivers who had high blood alcohol levels and even a short drive for them would be unsafe.

"The longer the drive, the greater the risk," he said.

Warning Signs for Drowsy Driving

The Boston researchers looked out for certain signs that would indicate the participants' level of drowsiness, such as partial eyelid closures, frequent blinking and yawning.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), other warning signs include having difficulty remembering the past few miles driven, feeling restless or irritable, daydreaming or having disconnected thoughts, drifting from lanes, missing exits, and hitting rumble strips on the sides of roads.

How to Reduce Accident Risks

Czeisler suggested that night-shift workers should find alternative forms of transportation after their duties instead of driving themselves home. He said that by doing so, they would not only help themselves, but they would also keep from putting other people in danger, too.

Companies with employees that work during graveyard hours should provide transportation for their workers, he said. This way, companies won't be responsible for the kind of dangers that could happen when workers attempt to drive home in their drowsy state.

The CDC meanwhile said adults who drive need more than seven hours of sleep a day, and should stick to an effective sleep schedule. Drivers should also avoid taking medications that make them drowsy.

Meanwhile, the National Sleep Foundation recommended a "buddy system" for people going on long drives so the driver can occasionally pull over and switch roles with a companion.

Why This Research Is Important

"This type of research is really important because we have two pillars of health right now: diet and exercise," said Dr. Nitun Verma of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. 

"It's reaffirming there's a third pillar of health, which is sleep," said Verma.

Czeisler believes that drowsy driving is a preventable public health hazard.

"These findings help to explain why night shift workers have so many motor vehicle crashes than day workers, particularly during the commute home," said Czeisler.

Photo : Travis Hornung | Flickr

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