ARLINGTON, Va. - She has a full-time day job, but nonetheless you will occasionally find Jennifer Pearce, alongside a highway at a rest stop, passing out pamphlets and educating drivers on an issue that she believes is a second calling: drowsy driving and getting adequate sleep.
“You hold so many peoples’ hearts in your hand every single time you’re behind the wheel,” Pearce said, visibly emotional. “You have no idea that one mistake can ruin lives--not just end lives but ruin lives, for years and years and years."
Pearce, unfortunately, speaks from experience.
Ten years ago her sister, Nicole Lee, was in the passenger seat when she and a few friends were driving home.
“Their car left the side of the road and hit a tree, in the passenger side. And that’s where Nicole was seated.”
She was 18 years old and a freshman at Virginia Tech. She had spent the day skiing with friends, and the night before they had all been out late having fun. They hadn’t had much sleep at all. The driver, she says, admitted that he had fallen asleep.
“I still mourn the fact that my sister would be 28 and she would potentially be engaged and she would have a career, as her friends are starting to have babies.”
Pearce is still "tormented" that the accident was fully preventable, but feels it all happened for a reason.
“I believe this is why she died,” Pearce said. “I now have a feeling that she’s accomplishing this. So it hurts a little less to be part of this.”
She’s comforted that it seems more and more people are recognizing drowsy driving as a problem. New findings released by AAA confirms that the rate of drowsy driving may be up to eight times higher than earlier government estimates.
AAA's analysis, which included studying video footage from the vehicles of over 3,500 drivers, estimates that drowsiness played a role as many as 8.8 percent to 9.5 percent of crashes. Previous estimates put the numbers around 1 to 2 percent.
These days, Pearce wears a Fitbit fitness tracker to constantly make sure she’s getting enough sleep--at least the recommended seven hours.
The one thing she wants drivers to do in the wake of hearing about her story: Get a hotel or just pull over and nap for a couple hours if you feel drowsy or you know you probably haven’t had enough sleep. It could save lives, Pearce said..
“The only thing that works is sleep," she said. "The only solution. So if you’re not sleeping, you really shouldn’t be behind the wheel.”