Higher education

Wake up! New drowsy driving initiatives discussed at Iowa City summit

Drowsy driving contributes to 21 percent of fatal crashes nationwide

An Iowa Department of Transportation message board sign reads #x201c;Air Bags Are Not Pillows Rest Before Driving#x201d;
An Iowa Department of Transportation message board sign reads “Air Bags Are Not Pillows Rest Before Driving” on I-380 NB in Cedar Rapids on Monday, June 27, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Turn up the radio and get a cup of coffee: It’s time to talk about drowsy driving.

You might wonder what’s new about drowsy driving and why more than 60 people gathered Thursday at the University of Iowa College of Public Health for what was billed as the first-in-the-nation Drowsy Driving Summit.

Turns out, researchers, transportation planners and public officials are working on new ways to reduce drowsy driving, involved in 21 percent of fatal crashes nationwide, according to AAA.

Tim Brown, senior researcher at the UI’s National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS), described two new contracts, combined worth $250,000 in initial phases, with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The first would be to develop algorithms to analyze a massive driving database to identify times when drivers were drowsy, Brown said.

A second study would test methods of alerting drivers to drowsiness, Brown said.

“Maybe you would get a GPS alert saying ‘Starbucks at the next exit’,” he said. The alert could even give you a coupon to pull off the road for caffeine — if the research shows these methods are effective at reducing drowsy driving, Brown said.

Gary Milavetz, a UI associate professor in Pharmacy Practice and Science, presented results of a study showing how prescription drugs can increase potentially-dangerous driving behaviors. A recent study of 46 adults at the NADS showed participants given Benadryl were many times more likely to speed than participants who were given a placebo.

“Everyone probably knows that if you use an impairing substance, you shouldn’t do it, you know it impairs driving,” Milavetz said. But nearly half of Americans use at least one prescription drug — many of which don’t come with adequate warnings of when users should avoid driving, officials said.


Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who spoke briefly at the summit, said he will be working with Iowa Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan to propose legislation in 2017 intended to reduce drowsy, impaired or distracted driving.

Proposals floated by public safety officials in the past have included all-occupant seat belt laws and a ban of electronic communications — including making calls — unless the driver uses a hands-free device.

“We need to take part in initiatives that make our roads safer,” Branstad said.

Mark Lowe, director of the Motor Vehicle Division at Iowa Department of Transportation, said his agency’s installation of 2,200 miles of rumble strips on Iowa highways has coincided with a decreased number of crashes caused by people veering off the road.

Four thousand miles of paved shoulders and 258 miles of median cable barriers also help avoid or reduce the impact of crashes caused by drowsy, distracted or impaired drivers.

“There’s no magic bullet,” said Mark Rosekind, NHTSA administrator and sleep researcher.

He challenged summit participants to follow their own advice and make sleep a priority for themselves and their families. “This 24/7 lifestyle is in conflict with our biological design,” he said. “Start making the changes yourselves.”

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