Driving while drowsy can be deadly, warns sleep expert

Driving while drowsy is the third leading cause of car accidents in Quebec after alcohol and speeding.

According to sleep expert Charles Morin, surveys show that 20 per cent of Canadians have dozed off while at the wheel in the last year.

In Quebec, one in five fatal accidents is caused by falling asleep at the wheel.

“Maybe it doesn’t get the same attention as using your cellular phone or drinking and driving, but clearly, this is a very important cause of road accidents,” said Morin, a psychology professor at Laval University and the Canada research chair in sleep disorders medicine.

Morin is trying to create awareness around driving while tired by partnering with Ford, which has designed a nearly 40-pound suit that simulates the effects of sleep deprivation.

“It gives you this sense of heaviness as when you are sleep-deprived,” Morin explained. “And you have some weights at your ankles and your wrist, and this slows down your reaction time.”

Glasses simulate what Morin calls microsleep: “A microsleep episode may last just a few seconds, and you may have your eyes open… (but) you are no longer there, cognitively speaking. Your brain is asleep.”

Nodding off behind the wheel can be deadly.

“Fatigue is one of the leading causes of death on the road,” said Mario Vaillancourt with the Quebec automobile insurance board, SAAQ.

SAAQ conducts an annual awareness campaign against driving while drowsy. Vaillancourt said that too often, people wrongly believe they can beat sleep.

“Even if you roll down the window, even if you have some energy drinks or you listen to loud music, it won’t change the fact you are fatigued and you are a dangerous driver,” he said.

The only way to stop feeling drowsy, he added, is to get some sleep.

Morin agrees and said it doesn’t have to be for long.

“A short nap — 15, 20 minutes — should do it for the next few hours,” he said.

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