Drowsy Driving, Sun Flower Seeds, & Safety

In the 20 years I served as a Research Psychologist at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation), I studied a variety of safety issues posed by different subpopulations. I worked on developing programs to increase seat belt use and to improve the safety of younger drivers, older drivers, drowsy drivers, and distracted drivers. (Others looked at speed, alcohol and other drugs, pedestrians, and bicyclists.) By and large, the agency sponsored good research and disseminated valid program information to the States and the general public. However, every so often the agency hiccupped, and valuable information was withheld.

Here is an example from my own efforts.

For years long-haul truck drivers have developed a variety of methods for fighting fatigue on the road. After opening the windows and blasting the radio, most of the suggestions they offer involve eating or drinking. Some recommend chewing on ice chips; others depend on potato chips. Some advocate lemon drops and others depend on pistachio nuts. But the item most commonly recommended is sunflower seeds.

At some point I ran across an article in a respected journal in which the investigator compiled a list of all the truck driver recommendations he had heard of, and then submitted the list to a number of well respected researchers who have studied drowsy driving. The author of the article asked the experts to rate the effectiveness of each of the methods the drivers had recommended. Not surprisingly, the experts were unanimous in judging all methods to be ineffective.

Two things about this article jumped out to me: the first was how unscientific the study was. Not a single researcher had ever actually tested any of the suggested methods experimentally. The second was that truck drivers were absolutely convinced that their method (which ever one they favored) was effective for them.

I decided to conduct an informal experiment using myself as the subject. The next road trip I took, I prepared two containers that fit in the cup holders in the center console of my vehicle and that I could easily reach without taking my eyes off the road. One was filled with salted sunflower seeds in the shell; the other served as a disposal receptacle for the empty shells. When I started to feel like my eyes were heavy and I was frequently raking my fingers through my hair and changing position every minute or so, I popped a few seeds into my mouth and started splitting the shells and chomping the nuts. To my surprise, I was immediately more alert.

I verified this effect on a number of trips and recruited several friends to try this approach, all of whom had a similar experience. Damn! The truckers were right. This stuff works (at least temporarily — at some point sleep will win no matter how many seeds one cracks). OK, so I confirmed the anecdotal reports with my own anecdote. Now it was time to conduct an actual formal experimental study.

In my capacity as a Research Psychologist at NHTSA, I arranged for a contract with the eminent traffic safety researcher, Prof. David Shinar, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, to test the hypothesis that cracking and eating sunflower seeds reduce driver fatigue. David designed and conducted a study using a sophisticated driving simulator, and compared the effects of sunflower seeds, an energy drink, and nothing (the control group). Both the seeds and the energy drink succeeded in reducing the effects of fatigue on the driving task, with some evidence that the energy drink had a negative rebound effect after a few hours.

Finally, there was empirical evidence that confirmed what the truckers (and I) had experienced. But NHTSA would not publish the report. I never got a satisfactory reason for not releasing information that could potentially save lives. In retrospect I have concluded that NHTSA was/is extremely cautious about issuing seemingly conflicting advice. The “party line” for drowsy drivers at the time was, “drink two cups of coffee and take a 20 minute nap.” Clearly, suggesting that someone could simply eat some sunflower seeds and keep driving conflicted with that message.

Along the same lines, when the agency was preparing a position paper on cell phone use by drivers (the “party line” was “Don’t. Ever.”) I suggested that at 2am, when a woman is less than an hour from home and starts to fall asleep and she doesn’t have any sunflower seeds and there aren’t any safe places where she can stop for a nap (are there any such places?), she should call someone on her cell phone to help her stay awake. Summarily dismissed. “We don’t want drivers to use their cell phones at all. Period.”

Similarly, one Administrator stopped us from circulating a small PC program (these days it would be called an “app”) that estimated a person’s blood alcohol content from a few simple factors. Why? Because the Administrator thought that people would use the BAC calculator to see how much they could drink before crossing the legal limit (actually, that was the point) and would, inevitably, drink too much (that was his opinion).

Fortunately, David presented his results at a conference, and published the results of a follow-up study, which did not require NHTSA approval. A summary of that study is here.

For what it is worth, Israeli sunflower seeds are very different from American sunflower seeds: theirs are much larger and have softer, more fibrous shells. I found that it was more difficult to separate the nut from the shell.

And perhaps it is ironic, but the brand of seeds that I prefer is “David.”

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About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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