California drivers, you better not be yawning behind the wheel this week. It could lead to a wake-up call from the California Highway Patrol.

The CHP will lead a weeklong campaign along with the National Sleep Foundation and local police to alert motorists to the perils of driving while sleepy -- which is nearly as risky as driving drunk, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That agency found that, after 17 hours of being awake, a person's motor skills were affected in the same manner as if that person had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 percent.

"Along with drunk driving, tired driving can lead to accidents, too," said Jose Geronimo of Milpitas. "I know because I was one of those people."

The sales analyst at Juniper said 12 years ago he was driving home on Highway 237 after midnight when, tired and groggy, he dozed off and hit a divider near Interstate 880. The crash broke the axle on his car but he was not injured.

But he was sleepy. He even tried to keep driving after the crash, but Milpitas police stopped him.

"I thought I just had a flat tire so I tried to drive home," Geronimo said. "Probably shock had something to do with the irrational thinking."

The CHP says drowsy driving caused more than 3,600 collisions, 32 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries in California in 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that falling asleep while driving results in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and more than 100,000 accidents each year.

And a survey by the National Sleep Foundation says 60 percent of adult drivers -- about 168 million people -- have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy each year, and more than one-third have fallen asleep.

The problem grows worse this time of year as drivers hit the road on long trips for the Veterans Day weekend, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays, sometimes leaving late at night or early in the morning to avoid California's notorious traffic jams.

How can a traffic cop tell if a driver is dozing off?

"Their driving pattern is very similar to that of an intoxicated driver," said Belmont officer Clyde Hussey. "Driving unusually slow, impeding traffic, drifting across lanes, driving on the shoulder. It is absolutely true that a drowsy driver can, in many cases, be as great a danger on the road as an intoxicated driver."

On the freeway, the CHP looks for drivers who speed up and slow down, straddle lanes and ride the Botts' dots. Many are caught during DUI crackdowns, sometimes getting tickets for what got a cop's attention -- unsafe lane changes, crossing double yellow lines, running red lights.

Some drivers try to combat drowsiness by rolling down their windows or turning up the radio, said Chris Cochran of the state Office of Traffic Safety. That doesn't work.

Those efforts are "good for only a minute or two," Cochran said. "It doesn't help rid your brain of the sleep-inducing chemicals that are causing you to nod off."

So what is a groggy person to do if there is not a passenger to share the driving?

"Plan stops so they can take a 15-minute nap or stop to stretch their legs every few hours," Cochran said. "A 15- to 30-minute nap is often better than an hour or two nap. The short nap changes the brain chemistry just enough to ward off the drowsiness for a couple of hours, whereas the longer nap can put you into a lethargy that takes time to wear off, if at all."

For Geronimo, the frightening memory of slamming into the barrier on 237 hasn't worn off.

"I don't drink and drive," he said, "and now, I don't drive when I'm tired."

Contact Gary Richards at 408-920-5335.

TIPS FOR STAYING ALERT WHILE DRIVING
  • Get enough sleep, at least seven to nine hours, to help maintain alertness. Avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep.
  • Pull off the road and take a 15-minute nap.
  • On long road trips, schedule breaks every couple of hours or every 100 miles.
  • Travel with a companion who can take a turn behind the wheel.
  • Avoid alcohol or medications that cause drowsiness.
  • Consume caffeine to increase alertness.
  • Stop for food or beverages. Avoid eating while driving.
    Sources: CHP, Office of Traffic Safety, National Sleep Foundation