- Maureen Short is a West Pointer and former US Army captain who learned about drowsy driving firsthand when she was a company commander in Iraq.
- She now studies drowsy driving as a safety engineer at General Motors’ Chevrolet brand.
- Her advice is to get adequate rest or pull over when you’re sleepy – don’t try to push through with coffee.
Maureen Short joined Chevrolet three years ago as a safety engineer, but her career was already something of a professional highlight reel.
The US Military Academy graduate followed up her West Point engineering studies with a deployment to Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as a company commander for the Corps of Engineers.
It was there that – in addition to building fortifications, schools, and roads – she experienced firsthand the dangerous effects of driving without enough sleep.
“We were going north into Iraq with 150 soldiers,” she recalled. “The convoy took longer than we expected, and a soldier fell asleep at wheel.”
The soldier was fine, but the vehicle was damaged, and this was when the company was headed into a combat zone.
Short left the Army as a captain and got a doctorate from Texas Tech, studying situational awareness. Along the way, she worked with the military to understand the importance of sleep and recovery.
At Chevy, she’s focused on researching “drowsy driving,” which AAA has described as a severely underacknowledged form of impaired driving. One of the things she does is don special goggles that affect vision and a weighted vest and wrist bands to reduce reaction times when driving on controlled courses.
A lot of drivers say they’ve been tired behind the wheel
Drowsy driving is a significant problem.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 35 percent of U.S. drivers sleep less than the recommended minimum of seven hours daily,” AAA reported last year. “In a recent related AAA Foundation survey, nearly all drivers (96 percent) say they view drowsy driving as a serious threat to their safety and a completely unacceptable behavior. However, 29 percent admitted to driving when they were so tired they had a hard time keeping their eyes open at some point in the past month.”
Strong coffee can’t bail you out after a late night, Short said.
“Caffeinated beverages are not a fail-safe,” Short said. “The best thing we can tell drivers at Chevy is to take a break and get rested before starting a trip.”
Short also recommended turning on all your vehicle’s driver-assist features, such as lane-departure warnings.
But it isn’t always practical to pull over if you’re feeling drowsy behind the wheel – a good indication is that you’re repeatedly drifting out of your lane – so Short suggested a few techniques to make it to the next highway rest stop.
“Call a friend or your mom,” she said. “Conversation engages the brain and helps you stay alert.”
She also said that Chevy’s OnStar communication, safety, and connectivity feature could lend a hand and that a human operator would be happy to talk with you, if you’re driving solo, until you get to a safe spot. Listening to a funny podcast is also an option, as it keeps the brain engaged.
Trying to do too much and still driving
According to Short, though numerous states are looking at or have proposed laws around drowsy driving, only two – Arkansas and New Jersey – currently consider it a form of impairment. She said the statistics suggested that states should do more.
“About 40% of people have fallen asleep when driving,” Short said. “And 20% of fatal crashes involve distracted driving. We’re all trying to do more, and we’re getting less sleep.”
She pointed to the problems of chronic undersleeping, which by the end of a week can lead to a drowsy driver as well as drivers who pull all-nighters and then get behind the wheel.
“The real issue with drowsy driving is that you don’t know how impaired you are,” she said. “Chevy wants you to think about this – how you aren’t the best judge of your drowsiness.”
She added that “if you’re yawning a lot, can’t recall the last few miles, and are hitting the brakes a lot, those are indicators that you’re drowsy.”
The best thing you can do if you experience these signs? Pull over and get some rest.