MILLCREEK — Chris Draper was 19 years old when he was involved in a rollover car crash during a road trip.
He and his cousin had planned to drive from Wells, Nevada, to West Wendover. Even though both of their parents advised against it, they took off at 10 p.m. in separate cars.
Sleep-deprived and halfway to the destination, Draper felt his head nod a couple of times, but he tried to stay awake. Eventually, he dozed off and was awakened by the horns of construction crews behind him who noticed that his car was drifting.
Upon waking up, he noticed he was off the road and quickly swerved — causing his Mazda Protege to flip over seven times.
Draper shared his story about the dangers of drowsy driving in front of the emergency entrance at St. Mark's Hospital Thursday at a Zero Fatalities news conference.
"I'm very, very lucky to be alive. I don't know how I survived this," he said as he stood near a photo of his wrecked car.
Even though his head smashed into the car window, he came out of the accident with a minor head bump. His cousin didn't even notice he had crashed until he received a phone call from him.
He said it was fortunate that he was the only person in the car when the accident occurred.
He attributes his survival to wearing his seat belt, a habit he said he's maintained to this day and has instilled in his daughters.
Nowadays, he's learned to never drive drowsy, and when he feels tired, he's sure to pull over and take a nap.
"Drowsy driving can happen to each and every one of us," said Utah Department of Transportation spokesman John Gleason. "Sleep will always win in the end, and you don't want to be behind the wheel when it does."
He said 16 years to 20 years is the age range that's overrepresented in drowsy driving crashes. He added that new drivers might not be used to the effects that drowsiness has on their driving.
It's a problem, he emphasized, that everyone is susceptible to encounter.
"Hopefully none of us drink and drive, not all of us are aggressive drivers, but all of us are susceptible to becoming tired," he said. "And if you are tired at the wrong time and the wrong place behind the wheel, then the results could be terrible."
Drowsy driving crashes occur more frequently during the summer months, he said, due to longer daylight hours, the increased number of people on the roads and taking long road trips.
Two weekends ago in Provo Canyon, he said, a crash caused by drowsy driving sent four people to the hospital.
"Luckily, no one was killed in that crash," he said. "But it underscores the problem that we have with drowsy driving here in the state."
He said drowsy driving accident statistics are "severely" underreported because it can be hard to determine the cause of a crash, especially if a death is involved.
Kris Mitchell, trauma medical director at St. Mark's Hospital, said a "tired brain" is very similar to a drunken brain.
Staying awake for 18 hours, he said, is equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of .05%, the legal limit in Utah. A full 24 hours without sleep is equivalent to having a blood alcohol level of 0.1%, well over the legal limit.
He said drowsy driving is the second highest cause of fatalities of motor vehicular crashes.
One of the first signs that someone is too tired to drive is yawning and nodding off.
"Your reaction times to react to hazards that are on the road, (or) anything that may cause an accident go way down when you're tired," Mitchell said, adding that it's important to get a full night's rest before driving for long periods of time, especially trips longer than eight to 10 hours.
"A lot of people make that mistake of trying to drive overnight when they are normally awake during the day," he said.
Mitchell suggested that drivers take 15- to 20-minute power naps if they notice they are drowsy.
"If you get up early and skip the sleep, these are the times you're going to drive drowsy and it's just as bad as driving drunk," he said.
At the hospital, he said he notices these kinds of accidents a lot more frequently during the summer due to the increase in summer vacations and attitudes to rise early to beat traffic.
Other warning signs of drowsy driving include difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, trouble remembering the last few miles driven, and feeling restless or irritable.
According to a Utah Department of Public Safety poll, 44% of drivers say they’ve fallen asleep or nodded off while driving. Those who average six hours of sleep or less are three times more likely to crash as a result of driving drowsy, according to statistics from Zero Fatalities.
Correction: Chris Draper told the Deseret News he was driving a Nissan Sentra at the time of his accident but later recalled he was driving a Mazda Protege.
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