- 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 GM’s Chevrolet brand.
- Her advice is to get adequate rest or pull over when 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.
Read more: How GM went from a government bailout and bankruptcy to being one of the world’s best-run car companies a decade later
Short left the Army as a Captain and did a doctorate in situational awareness at Texas Tech, and along the way she worked with the military to understand the importance of sleep and recovery.
At Chevy, she’s been able to focus on researching “drowsy driving,” which AAA has estimated is a severely under-acknowledged 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 impose reduced reaction times when driving on controlled courses.
A lot of drivers admit to being tired when they get behind the wheel
Drowsy driving is a significant problem. “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 35% of US 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%) say they view drowsy driving as a serious threat to their safety and a completely unacceptable behavior. However, 29% 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 that if your vehicle has driver-assist features, such as lane-departure warnings, you should turn everything on. But it isn’t always practical to pull over if you’re feeling drowsy behind the wheel — and good indication that you are is 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 can lend a hand; a human operator will 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 because it keeps the brain engaged.
Trying to do too much and still driving
According to Short, although numerous states are looking at or have proposed laws around drowsy driving, only two states — Arkansas and New Jersey — currently consider it a form of impairment. The statistics suggest that states should do more, however.
“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 given week, leads 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, “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.
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