Published March 22, 2019
More than 300 students in UB’s “Introduction to Public Health” (PUB101) class received a wake-up call last week when New York’s “Stay Awake, Stay Alive” campaign made a stop on its statewide tour.
The campaign, sponsored by the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee (GTSC) and the state Department of Health, has made stops at various SUNY campuses and aims to bring awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving among young people. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people age 18-29 have the highest likelihood to drive while drowsy at 71 percent.
Presenting information and experiences regarding drowsy driving to UB students were Mark J.F. Schroeder, commissioner, New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV); Maureen Kozakiewicz, GTSC state program coordinator for drowsy driving; Jennifer Pearce, a victim advocate; Lisa Endee, clinical assistant professor, Stony Brook University; and Michelle Anderson, director of operations, National Road Safety Foundation (NRSF).
Schroeder began the program by immediately asserting the seriousness and prevalence of the issue.
“Drowsiness and fatigue are contributing factors in thousands of crashes each year on our highways and cause far too many preventable deaths and injuries,” he said. “In New York in 2017, fatigue or drowsy driving were factors in 2,337 police-reported personal injuries and fatal crashes.”
Schroeder said he can relate to the difficulty of having little sleep, like many of the students in attendance in Norton Hall. For seven years, the South Buffalo native was a representative in the New York State Assembly, which required a frequent four-hour trip to Albany.
“For six months, every single week and twice a week, I would drive four hours to Albany,” he said. “I can tell you there were some moments where my eyes were getting tired. I would pinch myself or scream, ‘stay awake, stay awake;’ I would do anything to motivate myself and get out of that spell. I remember one time I was only 20 minutes away from home heading to Albany and I just couldn’t stay awake, so I went to the very first service station on (Interstate 90), knowing that I still have another three and a half hours to go, but it was the best thing that I did.”
Kozakiewicz followed up Schroeder’s warnings by presenting several statistics on the issue, particularly emphasizing that driving with less than four hours of sleep is no different than driving under the influence of alcohol. She also gave students pointers on how to notice a drowsy driver by listing certain characteristics, like drifting from a lane or hitting a highway’s rumble strip.
Students then heard from Pearce, who told the tragic story of the death of her sister, Nicole Lee, in 2008. After a daylong skiing trip on little sleep, Lee, a freshman at Virginia Tech, and friends attempted the journey back to campus; but, Lee didn’t make it back because the driver of the car fell asleep and crashed, resulting in her death.
Students became increasingly attentive as Pearce recalled all of the events that ensued after the initial tragedy. She used vivid imagery when describing such things as picking out the dress Lee would wear in her casket or crying in a hotel bathtub after learning of Lee’s death.
“To this day, 11 years later, I am fundamentally different; there is a sadness that has seeped into me that will most likely never leave,” Pearce said. “What the news, the TV shows and the movies don’t have time to tell you is that deep grief doesn’t happen immediately. The shock can take a long time to wear off and your brain will only allow you to comprehend so much pain at one time.
“There are so many new emotions that you can’t explain to people; it’s like trying to explain colors to somebody who can’t see them.”
Endee and Anderson wrapped up the class period by showcasing initiatives that are in place to increase awareness of the subject. Endee talked about her efforts in developing StopDrowsyDriving.org, an informational website that includes a sleepiness assessment quiz, and a drowsy driving curriculum developed with grant money provided by the GTSC. Anderson spoke of the NRSF’s “Stay Awake, Stay Alive” video public service announcement contest and revealed this year’s winners.
After the class, the presenters met with Gunnar Haberl, president of the undergraduate Student Association, to talk about how to make more students aware of the issue and increase participation in the video PSA contest.
“I think it’s critical that the university is having these conversations and I think it’s important that we had these visitors on campus to bring awareness to students,” Haberl said. “Oftentimes we don’t think of sleep being an important part of our academic lifestyle on campus, and it shows through their experience and raising awareness on this issue that it does impact our lives.”
Endee echoed that sentiment, noting that students and staff alike need to be aware of the problem.
“College students are an at-risk population for drowsy driving, yet many do not perceive it as a danger relevant to them,” Endee later told UBNow.
“Sleep wellness is critical to the academic success, safety and overall wellness of our young adult population,” she added. “It is important for it to be recognized as such by students themselves, as well as those who they look to for support and guidance.”
Haberl said he hopes faculty and staff at UB will urge students to get more sleep and enact measures to make that a reality. He also said he will soon begin those conversations with faculty leadership.
“This issue is going to require a cultural shift of mine,” Haberl said. “It’s going to require faculty and staff to prioritize this in their lectures and classrooms, and incorporate it into the conversations that they have before exams. Having those conversations and hearing it over and over again is critical. What SA can do is meet with the Faculty Senate chair and start having those conversations with the faculty leadership.”