I remember so clearly the day I hiked my first Adirondack mountain. It was a big one. Blue Mountain: 3,750 feet tall. Four miles of hiking and equally as many hours. 1,500 ft in elevation to climb, but there’s a really cool old fire tower at the top, one of just 25 in the entire region. The summer sun was hot, but the day was gorgeous. The summit views were stunning. The bugs could have been done without.
It doesn’t seem like such a big ask now that I have more miles under my muddied-up worn-in Merrells (and a host of other fire towers checked off my list too!), but for a girl from the flatness of Long Island, it was a large challenge. My partner had done that hike many times before, it’s one of his favorites having lived in the shadow of that mountain for many summers. He was so excited to share it with me, to show me his home turf and the beauty of the Adirondacks firsthand. I gave him a lot of grief on that hike that day (he told me it was okay to wear sneakers… pro-tip: it’s not!), but we made it and followed up our hike with a swim in the lake and a picnic lunch.
It was the best of times. It was the worst of exhaustion.
I set this scene not because I want to tell you all about my fabulous hike, although it was, and I’ve become a better hiker since, I swear. I do want you to imagine though, how tired this day would make you. How much your body needs to rest after all of that work and movement. How you feel after a day at the lake or beach, swimming and crisping in the sun, and how amazing the nap is right after you get home. That’s the feeling we had as we got back in the car.
That’s when we both experienced our first crucial lesson in drowsy driving.
As we took to the winding mountain roads to find our way back home, we settled in for the two-hour drive. Turned on the radio. Rolled down the windows. Sunglasses on. Not long into our trip, I sat in the passenger seat, nodding off. Unable to keep my eyes open despite every amazing sight we were passing, the sun reflecting off the water as it set behind the mountains. As my partner drove I trusted in his innate abilities to master this road as he had so many times before.
I woke to the sound of a horn. A truck horn. It was loud. It jarred me out of slumber and into reality so fast to see that we were no longer in the right lane traveling home and instead veering into the left, trespassing into oncoming traffic, with a blue-cabbed semi heading our way. My entire body tensed. I grabbed my partner’s shoulder, he too was awakened by the horn, and was aiming to get us back in our rightful lane. I’m forever thankful for that truck driver, who had the presence of mind to alert us early enough to make a course correction, avoid a crash, and save lives. We were very lucky. But we’re certainly not alone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 25 adult drivers report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days, and a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated that 328,000 drowsy driving crashes occur annually. Driving drowsy is impaired driving, just as dangerous as alcohol, drugs, or distraction can be, yet we rarely read about this issue and we seldom see targeted prevention efforts to create awareness of drowsy driving impacts. We are all at risk of being asleep at the wheel, physically and metaphorically, especially those in the 18-29 age bracket.
All of these crashes, the injuries and fatalities they produce, and the near misses like we experienced, are preventable! It starts with knowledge of the issue, understanding the risks, and sharing your awareness with others to help create change. I encourage you to check out the information from the “Stay Awake! Stay Alive!” drowsy driving prevention project run out of New York SADD. Dive into the data and education sections to learn more about what YOU can do as a driver, a passenger, and an advocate. Read about Nikki and her tragic story told through her sister Jennifer. Take the PSA videos and other resources, and share them with your networks, your friends and family.
I hope you remember this story the next time you take to the open roads after you climb a mountain, enjoy afternoons at the beach, run a 5k, play sports, spend the day at work or school, or anything else that taxes your brain and body. Never be afraid to pull over and take a quick nap. To delay departure to sleep longer. To cancel a trip because your body is telling you to rest. Make the safe choice. Be the change you wish to see.
Help save a life.
For additional information on the dangers of driving impaired and other key driving skills, check out the NRSF Passport to Safe Driving!
Interested in more conversations like this one? Consider joining SADD for the 2023 Summer Conference Series, a virtual event focused on celebrating youth health and safety all summer long. Learn more and register for free below!