Eight years ago, I was finishing my last few semesters of college in Philadelphia. I had maxed out my schedule with a full course load, and beyond that, I was traveling to New York regularly to visit my then-boyfriend. I was managing all of my responsibilities without issues, until my finals came around.
I spent most of the weekend in New York studying for an accounting final. My test was at 8 AM Monday morning, and with a four hour drive ahead of me, I left New York at 3 AM to ensure I would make it to my final in plenty of time despite the usual traffic.
Halfway to Philadelphia, I woke up to the sound of screeching metal. The passenger side of my Volkswagon was grinding against the guardrail on the right side of the highway. Adrenaline surged through me, and I quickly jerked the steering wheel to correct the course of the car, but I was not yet conscious enough to react with any sort of finesse. I overcorrected and swung across all four lanes of the highway and directly into a tree in the median.
I woke up a few seconds later, and willed myself out of the car on my shaky legs. As I walked away from the wreckage, I sat down on the grass completely disoriented. A woman in a Jeep Liberty stopped to check on me as she had seen the whole accident. My mother also was driving a Jeep Liberty at the time, and I was convinced this woman was my mother. She asked me where I was coming from and I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t remember.
Ultimately, I came out of my shock and was able to call a tow truck, and somehow still made it to my final on time. It didn’t hit me until that night just how dangerous what I had done really was, not just for myself, but also for the innocent drivers around me that were just trying to get to where they needed to go. I am eternally grateful that the situation turned out the way it did. No lives were ruined, but things could have turned out very differently.
For over a month I hid this accident from even my closest friends. I even attempted to purchase the exact same car so no one would know that something had happened, but in the following years, I realize that ignoring it was also dangerous behavior. Since then I have lost friends to similar situations.
Driving while sleep deprived is a growing issue that requires immediate attention. It’s not an easy fix since we all need sleep, but have a million other commitments that put pressure on our time.
According to Mark Rosekind of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 56 million Americans admitted to driving while drowsy, and 8 million admitted to falling asleep while driving. The sheer numbers are staggering and we need our government and our corporations to view this as a necessary cultural change.
Arianna Huffington has begun to lead a charge in redefining what sleep should mean to us. Our culture has put such an emphasis on productivity, that it seems nearly impossible to sleep and be successful, and sleep deprivation has come to be “a badge of honor”. But studies have shown that we are ultimately more productive when we are well rested. In fact, some companies such as Aetna, are even starting to incentivise their employees to sleep more.
Hopefully by being candid in discussing the dangers of exhaustion and their manifestations, we can help change what has become a cultural norm.
More information about driving while sleep deprived can be found in this very informative panel discussion hosted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with the Huffington Post on May 10, 2016.