No rest stops for the weary?

Consumer Reports News: July 16, 2009 03:30 PM

If stopping at a rest area isn’t your favorite part of a road trip, then you’re not driving to the right places. So head north on I-91 across the Massachusetts/Vermont border and take a break at the Guilford Welcome Center.

The building is beautiful, a light, airy, barn-like structure criss-crossed with pegged wooden beams and filled with displays of hand-planed maple tables and mouth-blown wine glasses made in Vermont. You can log onto the free WiFi, get directions, book hotels … in fact, plan your whole visit to the state with help from the staff, a benefit to the tourist industry in a state that bans billboards.

But maybe the best part (aside from the clean bathrooms) is that you’re off the highway for a few minutes. Unfortunately, not every motorist has that luxury, even in Vermont. The Wall Street Journal reported recently  that at least eight states are planning to shutter some roadside facilities, or already have. Tighter budgets are forcing states to weigh the costs of keeping rest areas open. (Listen to this report on NPR.)

Consumer Reports knows that taking breaks is a very good thing.  And a German study from 2007 notes that “driver fatigue (sleepiness, tiredness) is the largest identifiable and preventable cause of road accidents worldwide, accounting for approximately 15-20 percent of all accidents, with official statistics often underestimating this contribution.”

There are no federal rules for the spacing of rest areas, but the recommended distance is no more than about 60 miles—or one hour's drive—apart.

We spoke with Gerry Myers, the Commissioner of Buildings and General Services for the state of Vermont, which recently closed four rest areas. He said that safety was definitely a factor in the selection process. The state considered not just what condition the buildings were in and how much traffic they got, but how far a driver would have to go to find another convenient spot to pull off and take a break. Each area Vermont decided to close was within about 20 minutes of other services, so drivers won’t have to push themselves past the point of fatigue.

Vermont is still studying the effect of closures on trucks and other commercial traffic. For now, officials are leaving the parking areas of the closed stops open, because while cars can pull into gas stations and other private facilities on New England’s small country roads, big rigs don’t always have that option.

Wherever you're driving, the AAA Foundation for Auto Safety says pulling over is even more important at certain times of the day. "Timing your breaks becomes crucial at night or between 2 and 4 p.m., when your body's circadian rhythm makes you sleepy. Statistics show dramatic spikes in drowsy-driving collisions during those hours."

Our auto team has these additional tips for a safer road trip:

  • Get adequate sleep before you get in the car.
  • Take breaks—especially if driving a long distance.
  • Arrange for a travel companion to swap driving duties.
  • Avoid alcohol and/or medications that can cause drowsiness.
  • If feeling tired, pull off the road and nap for 15-20 minutes.
  • Caffeine may help, but can take some time to get into your system and when it wears off can leave you even more tired.
  • If you have a teen driver, implement your own nighttime driving restrictions.
  • Drinking a good quantity of water helps as it prevents dehydration that can cause drowsiness. It also requires you to pull over regularly and stretch your legs for a bathroom break.—Jonea Gurwitt

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