Next time you feel yourself nodding off behind the wheel, think twice before you rely on that energy drink.
Call a friend, put on a podcast or better yet: Just pull over.
“The No. 1 way to really help with drowsiness is just don’t get on the road, and get the sleep,” said Maureen Short, a former Army captain who studies driver’s safety issues as an engineer for Chevrolet.
Armed with a simulation suit consisting of goggles and 23 pounds of wearable weights, Short, 41, is traveling to a few cities this summer to conduct demonstrations on the effects fatigue can have on drivers by slowing their reaction times and impairing decision making.
“If you see a novel situation — something that maybe you haven’t seen before — and your decision making is impaired, you’re not going to be able to come up with a good, solid alternative,” she said. “If you’re going 70 (miles per hour), it’s a lot more dangerous.”
Short’s mission to raise awareness of drowsy driving draws on her experiences as a company commander in Iraq at the start of the war in 2003 and 2004. One of her soldiers fell asleep at the wheel while driving north into Baghdad, she said, and while no one was hurt, that memory has stuck with her.
“It left that seed in my brain of: Hey, we can’t control when we fall asleep,” she said.
It’s difficult to pinpoint just how pervasive of a problem drowsy driving is, since many crashes that could be traced back to a sleepy driver are often recorded as lane departures or something similar, she said. Plus, when drivers here a siren, they immediately become alert.
According to a report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year, drowsy drivers caused 803 deaths in 2016, accounting for 2.1 percent of driving-related fatalities. But a recent AAA report found that more than 10 percent of crashes severe enough to be reported to the police were related to driver drowsiness, suggesting this could be an even bigger problem than federal data indicate.
Additionally, a survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that while 95 percent of drivers see drowsy driving as an unacceptable behavior, more than 30 percent admitted to driving while having trouble keeping their eyes open at some point in the past month.
Short said the summer can be particularly deadly.
“That’s the time where we know you’re going to take your family trips. For the military, you’re going to have that PCS move, and you’re going to be on the road,” she said. “We want to bring you that awareness of if you are tired, if you are sleepy, don’t push it. Don’t take that long trip. Get the sleep you need before you start to drive.”
Short left the Army in 2006 and went to work in the defense contracting industry before getting a job at General Motors in Detroit two years ago.
Her work for Chevy mirrors her mission as an Army captain, she said.
“One of the things you do when you are in the military is you’re always thinking about how do I keep my soldier’s safe, and at Chevy, I’m doing the same thing,” Short said. “I’m helping to look at how do I keep my driver’s safe? How do we make our vehicle’s more safe? It’s really just a great alignment of that value of trying to keep (people) safe and protected.”