Alex Medrano was headed to his construction job early on May 5, 2017, when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car on Highway 126 near Piru, California.
In a matter of seconds, Alex’s life changed forever, says his father, Eddie Medrano, a CLAM operator at Aera Energy’s Ventura field.
Near a curve in the road, Alex’s Nissan Altima collided head-on with an oncoming semi-truck. The truck driver walked away from the 6:15 a.m. crash with minor injuries, although his semi was totaled. But 40-year-old Alex, the single occupant in his car, sustained major trauma to his left arm and leg and was rushed to the hospital in nearby Valencia.
“He survived, but he will deal with physical disabilities for the rest of his life,” Eddie says. “He may never be able to work again.”
That day, Alex became one of the more than 30,000 people injured each year in drowsy-driving accidents on America’s roadways. From 2011-2015, falling asleep at the wheel claimed 3,663 lives, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The Center for Disease Control says the numbers may also be underreported and that as many as 6,000 fatal crashes are caused by drowsy driving. The CDC says that 4 percent of the population has driven while drowsy in the last 30 days.
Aera’s wake-up call
Aera had its own drowsy-driving wake-up call in 2017 after a fatigued-driver incident involving an employee. Alone in his pickup truck near the end of his night shift, the employee fell asleep while driving between field locations. He missed a curve, striking a pipeline and its support structure. He wasn’t injured, but the truck was totaled.
That led Aera to increase its focus on drowsy driving. Now, as part of their annual Mandatory Environmental Safety Training (MEST), all employees learn ways to improve their sleep and avoid fatigued driving.
They not only hear about the potential short-term hazards of drowsy driving but the potential for mid-term health impacts too, such as higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and increased blood pressure.
There are also potential long-term effects from not getting enough sleep over the course of a lifetime, including the potential to be pre-disposed to dementia later in life, says Joe Bariffi, Aera’s safety and industrial hygiene manager.
“Whether in your personal life or at work, driving fatigued is very dangerous,” Bariffi says. “You need to take it as seriously as driving under the influence.”
Drowsy driving is a profound impairment that mimics alcohol-impaired driving, reports NHTSA. Drowsiness leads to slower reaction times and affects attention, mental processing, judgement and decision-making.
“It’s important to educate people about the risks of driving or operating equipment while sleep-deprived,” says Bariffi. “It falls in line with our guiding principle that every day, everyone goes home alive and well.”
Many Aera employees drive to rural locations that involve a 45-minute to one-hour commute each way, he adds. Many also start their commutes early in the morning or work rotating shifts of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Late-night and early-morning drive times are the most hazardous, with most crashes occurring between midnight and 6 a.m., when the body naturally experiences sleepiness, NHTSA says.
Moreover, crashes involving drivers who fall asleep occur more often on highways and roadways where speed limits are higher. To make matters worse, the driver is usually alone in the vehicle so there’s no one to alert the driver to danger. These circumstances contribute to the high rate of serious injuries and fatalities.
During their MEST instruction, Aera employees learn their responsibilities for reporting to their supervisor if they are not fit for duty, which includes drowsy driving. Supervisor responsibilities include watching for signs that a worker is fatigued and taking appropriate steps, such as taking that person home.
The long road back
Thirteen months after his accident, Alex finally was able to walk without a cane. He’s undergone five major surgeries and faces at least two more. The crash also took an emotional and financial toll on the Medrano family, including Alex’s wife and four children. “But we are so grateful he survived,” Eddie says.
Today, the Medranos are acutely aware of the perils of dozing off at the wheel. “When you’re tired, pull over,” advises Eddie. “Think of your family before you take the risk of driving under those conditions. There’s nowhere you need to get to that’s so important you need to risk your life.”
Ways to improve your sleep
- Make your room dark.
- Block outside sounds.
- Adjust your thermostat to a comfortable level before going to bed.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule.
- Maintain or improve your overall health.
- Avoid caffeine several hours before bedtime.
- Avoid alcohol before going to sleep.
- Know the side effects of medications.
- Develop a relaxing sleep ritual.
- Don’t make bedtime the time to solve the day’s problems.
- Set house rules about your sleep schedule.
- Unplug from the phone.