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Falling asleep while driving: 1 in 24 admit it

Published: Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 8:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 7, 2013 at 7:54 a.m.

CHP Officer Jon Sloat thought he'd spotted a drunken driver.

The car was weaving back and forth across three lanes on the Cotati Grade of Highway 101 before Sloat, off duty at the time, pulled him over.

But the man wasn't drunk.

"He'd worked all night," Sloat said. "He was exhausted and weaving all over the place."

One in 24 adults admitted to recently falling asleep behind the wheel, according to a study released last week by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Sonoma County, 112 people were injured in 193 crashes in which fatigue was a factor from 2008 through 2010, according to the latest figures available from the CHP. Three people were killed.

"Drowsy driving can be just as dangerous as drunk driving," Sloat said.

For the survey, researchers interviewed 147,000 people in 2009 and 2010 in California and 18 other states as well as the District of Columbia about sleeping and driving experiences.

Just more than 4 percent of adults said they fell asleep at the wheel during the previous 30 days.

Drowsy driving was more common among people who get less than six hours of sleep each night as well as those who snore.

It was also more common among men, those who are employed and people age 25 to 34 but decreased with age and was less common among the retired and unemployed.

Nationwide, about 3 percent of fatal crashes involved fatigued or dozing drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drowsiness contributed to 50 out of 2,500 fatal crashes in California in 2010.

Those statistics don't include fatigue caused by such factors as drugs or alcohol.

On Dec. 17, a Santa Rosa driver drifted into an opposing lane of Highway 12 near Oakmont and caused a five-car crash that injured himself and another driver, CHP officials said.

Kyle Thompson, 25, of Santa Rosa was on the way to a job site at Oakmont in a family work truck at the time of the 9 a.m. crash, Sloat said.

Thompson told officers he must have nodded off, Sloat said.

Drivers often don't recall what happened, he said.

"They were drowsy enough, even the events leading up the crash, they don't remember," Sloat said.

John Paternoster, who has taught driver's education in Sonoma County for at least 16 years, said he's heard terrifying stories of near-misses.

A friend who hauled timber in the Central Valley used to brag about being able to nap while on the road -- until he crashed.

"He ended up flipping the truck," Paternoster said.

He said he teaches new drivers that being awake is just as important as being sober.

"If you're feeling tired, pull over and rest," he said. "Open the windows, turn on the air-conditioning."

Sloat said that even a 10-minute nap can revive a fatigued driver.

Along Highway 101, officers often come across dozing drivers in cars parked on the Cotati Grade brake-check pullout.

"We come across people sleeping in their cars all the time; that's what we recommend," Sloat said.

Find a safe and legal place to park.

"And be an alert passenger; if the person driving the car is nodding off, say 'Let's pull over, get a cup of coffee, let me drive,' " Sloat said.

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