I had already put around 800 miles behind me, but still had more than 400 to go to get back to my unit by the next morning. No problem ... I was young, healthy, and enjoyed driving. I thought all I had to do was drink coffee and keep the car "between the lines" as truck drivers like to say Then it began getting dark.

All the visual stimuli -- road signs, pretty countryside, etc. -- that had helped keep me alert during the day were fading fast. As I drove into the night, I began "seeing things." I "saw" people walking across the road in front of me. I hit my high beams and slowed down, but it was nothing more than my imagination. Later I was startled to "see" the taillights of an 18-wheeler which appeared to be stopped in the road ahead. I slammed onto the brakes and swerved into the next lane. I was shocked when I realized the "lights" were not taillights at all -- just stars low on the horizon ahead.

Deciding that I would rather be Absent Without Leave or AWOL than dead, I got off at the next exit and found a place to take a nap in my car. I woke up to a policeman's flashlight shining through the window. When I explained that I was trying to drive more than 1,200 miles straight through from San Diego, Calif., to Seattle, Wash., he just shook his head in disbelief.

He was right too. I had tried to pack too many miles into too few hours. As a result, I had experienced the phenomenon called "highway hypnosis." I was lucky enough to survive these ghostly encounters; however, during the past 12 months, many Air Force members have been much less fortunate. We have had a number of people injured and at least one fatality from fatigue-related driving mishaps. To avoid becoming a mishap report in the Air Force Safety Center files, try the following risk reduction tips from the Automobile Club of Southern California.

* Get 8 hours of sleep before hitting the road. Being even a little tired can slow your reactions to highway hazards.

* Use extra caution if you must drive between 2:00 and 6:00 a.m.

* Pack early enough before a trip to allow for a normal night's sleep.

* Avoid drugs that cause drowsiness.

* When driving, keep your eyes moving from the left side of the road to the right. Also, periodically focus on an object that is near and then focus on one that is farther away.

* Stay alert. Decide ahead of time how to react to possible dangers or driving situations.

RELATED ARTICLE: Driving Fatigue Warning Signs

Your eyes close by themselves.

If you find yourself closing your eyes, stop and take a nap. Even a short 20-minute nap will help.

You find it difficult to pay attention.

If you find your self daydreaming, stop and exercise. Exercise will increase your alertness. Try running or walking while waving your arms.

You find yourself frequently swerving in your lane.

You are in danger of falling asleep at any moment. Stop for rest and exercise. It is better to be late than to not make it to your next destination at all.

Misconceptions About Fatigue

By Mr. Michael Brown

Reprinted in part Courtesy of Countermeasure, February 2002

Coffee overcomes the effects of drowsiness while driving.

False. Stimulants are no substitute for sleep. Drinks containing caffeine, such as coffee or cola can help you feel more alert, but the effects last only a short time. You are still likely to have micro-sleep or brief lapses that last 4 to 5 seconds.

I can tell when I'm going to fall asleep.

False. If you are like most people, you believe you can control your sleep. In a test, nearly 80 percent of people said they could predict when they were about to fallasleep. They were wrong. The truth is sleep is not voluntary. When you're drowsy, you can fall asleep and not even know it.

I'm a safe driver so it doesn't matter if I'm sleepy.

False. Alert drivers are safer. Even the safest drivers can use poor judgment when they're sleepy.

I can't take naps.

False. Scientific tests show that naps can help promote alertness. If you think you can't nap, pull over and relax for 15 minutes anyway. You may be surprised at how easily you fall asleep once you give yourself a chance.

I get plenty of sleep.

False. The average person needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. If you don't get this amount, then you probably don't get enough sleep and you may be building up a sleep debt. Ask yourself, "Do I feel rested?"

COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Department of the Air Force
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