I was in a car accident last night. We were hit on the drivers’ side by a person who ran a red light. By the time I noticed the all-black car at night, it was too late to swerve or stop. Both my passenger and I are physically fine, save for a possibly sprained wrist. My beloved Ginger (my first car) gave her life (she’s totalled) to keep us safe.
But, this story could have ended very, very differently. If I had been going slightly faster, the impact would have been directly on my door – and it is unlikely I would have been (mostly) unscathed.
After the accident, I had the chance to sit and talk with the other driver. She felt terrible. She hadn’t been drinking or using her cellphone. She had been waiting for the light to turn green – and thought it had (it hadn’t). So, she accelerated into the intersection as I entered.
She also told me she hadn’t gotten much sleep for the last three nights.
A lack of sleep isn’t something new to dancers. Many of us push ourselves to function in a sleep deficit. That “we” includes me.
When we are staying at a hotel, it’s not as big a deal. We can crash in our hotel rooms, and then come down for more dancing. But, if we need to get behind the wheel and drive, this habit becomes more dangerous. At its most critical level, it can lead to us falling asleep at the wheel. Even if we don’t actually fall asleep, sleep deprivation can create unnecessary risk while driving.
On a more chronic level, some of us go dancing almost every night until 2 or 3 a.m., and then get up for work the next morning. While one night of this may be manageable, multiple nights of this behaviour can lead to similar issues related to sleep deprivation. This is a sleep deficit.
The impact of sleep deprivation on driving is often compared to drunk driving. Further, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conservatively estimates that “100,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. This results in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries”.
Even if you don’t cause the crash, sleep deprivation can also impact how fast you can react to another driver. So, it could mean the difference between quickly swerving out of the way of a drunk driver – or not realizing until it’s too late.
What are the risk factors and warning signs that you’re not safe to drive?
DrowsyDriving.Org recognizes a number of behaviours that increase the risk of drowsy driving. Here are the ones that can often apply to those of us driving for dance:
- Sleep-deprived or fatigued (6 hours of sleep or less triples your risk)
Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia), poor quality sleep, or a sleep debt
Driving long distances without proper rest breaks
Driving through the night, mid-afternoon or when you would normally be asleep
Drinking even small amounts of alcohol
Driving alone or on a long, rural, dark or boring road
Part of identifying if you’re unsafe is also keeping an eye out for warning signs. According to the National Sleep Foundation, warning signs that it may be time to pull over for a nap or coffee include:
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
- Daydreaming; wandering/disconnected thoughts
- Trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs
- Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
- Feeling restless and irritable
I know that I have done some of these myself, in my really hardcore and far-driving days. I often pulled over at a coffee shop for a tea and donut to help out. Usually, this gave me the pep I needed to finish my drive safely – but there have been times I needed to stop for a nap before driving on. Even with those mitigations, the sleep deprivation is still a risk – albeit a more manageable one.
Please, dancers: keep yourself and others safe by only driving when you are fit to do so. Caffeinate. Take a nap. Stay with a friend. Get an Uber. Crash on the floor of someone’s hotel room. Whatever it is you have to do. At the end of the day, the inconvenience or cost is not worth the potential driving charges, car repairs, or (even worse) the potential mental and physical injuries that can result from a car accident.
I was lucky, but I would probably have not needed luck if the other driver was properly rested. Let’s make sure we don’t need anyone else to use their luck.
I’ve known for a long time that driving fatigued is functionally similar to driving drunk, in terms of cognition and reaction times. I feel it most, and take the most precautions, after Montreal’s GYZO (driving back to Toronto at night after the Monday’s Beachclub).
Since I know that I’ll already be fatigued from a weekend of dancing with a significant drive afterwards, on the Monday, I stay out of the sun as much as I can and don’t exert myself too much in the hot weather, so I don’t tap my energy out in the hours before the drive. I also take the GYZO bus to and from the Beachclub, so I have a chance to take a short nap after the Beachclub before driving home. I make more stops along the way home (maybe 3x as many), if only to get out of the car to stretch and move around to get the blood moving again. One of the bonuses to driving back so late is that there’s very little traffic, so lowered reaction time isn’t as much of an issue.
If I’m feeling the effects of the fatigue in between rest stops, there’s a few things that I do: consciously put more effort in to focusing (and self monitor how much the fatigue is affecting me; if I can’t self monitor, then it’s time for an immediate rest stop), turn the vents to blow cool air at my face (the cooler temperature and the breeze helps, but it’s somewhat irritating), repeatedly flex and relax all the muscles in my body (to get some blood moving again when I can’t actually move around), eat some snacks for some energy, or periodically gaze into the headlights of the traffic going the other way (helps against the drowsiness from the dark highway). I find that when I get close to Toronto, and the highways are lit, the lights boosts my alertness level even after a five to six hour drive.
If I decide that I need to, I pull over to the side of the highway for an impromptu rest stop.
The two accidents I’ve been in my life, I was emotionally compromised (I wasn’t at the start of the drive, they came suddenly) – Thank you Laura Riva for this PSA piece. Very glad everyone is safe!
On the positive side, I have also vigilantly outmaneuvered many potential crashes over the years by staying alert with a healthy dose of paranoia and defensive driving
– in 2015 summer, I swirled out of the way on to the highway shoulders when a mom in a van with 2 kids merged into my lane suddenly without signalling or checking her blindspot on a country highway near Ithaca, NY. She realized what happened, and was super apologetic and grateful for my driving that her kids are unharmed.
– in 2017 winter, on the very heavily snow covered 403 through Hamilton, ON. Some accident ahead caused the traffic to go from 120km/h to a stand still in less than 5s (or visually 200m)… I purposely hit break harder earlier and left room in front of me, just in case. 5s after I stopped with 2 car spacing in front of me, I was staring intensely into my rear view mirror – my paranoia paid off this time – a big truck 2 lanes away from me began to swirl slowly across. Could not stop, the driver was probably aiming for the highway shoulder besides me. The truck swiped through 3 lanes of traffic and shoving cars along the way and eventually onto my lane. I used the headroom in front of me and drove out of the way onto the shoulder far ahead…. but I would never forget the view I saw from that rearview mirror that day… the big truck rammed into the space where my car was at moments ago – I would have been completely crushed.
I have discovered for myself that when I seek to force concentration to fight sleepiness, then things actually get worse. It is as if, much as in dancing, that when we hold tension anywhere in the body-mind, we detract from the energy available to us. Instead, I seek to consciously relax. I know, that sounds like an oxymoron. Breathing out slows the heart. Softening the eyes frees up our attention. Relaxing our grip frees up our reaction time. Then we can more safely get to a rest stop where we can restore our energy level.