As we mark the distracted driving awareness month, with many being by now well aware of the risks of texting while driving, similarly as drinking and driving or driving under the influence, far fewer are aware of the risks that drowsy driving pose. Many people underestimate the dangers of drowsy driving, an issue commonly associated with truck drivers, or many other professionals who frequent America’s roadways for a living. Yet it is an issue equally as pertinent to all drivers, no matter their occupation or how often they are behind the wheel.
Studies show that drowsy driving is a significant factor in not only commercial trucking and rail collisions, but in motor vehicle collisions, too.
It is a silent killer on America’s roads, having taken the lives of 697 people just in 2019, with over 100,000 accidents being attributed to drowsy driving in 2019, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). So this post is dedicated to the issue of educating us on the perils of drowsy driving and tips on how we can combat it.
Drowsy driving, with the terms drowsy, sleepy, and fatigue being used interchangeably is in essence driving a vehicle while fatigued, the effects of which include impaired cognition and performance, motor vehicle crashes, workplace accidents, and health consequences.
Tackling these issues can be difficult, since our modern values frequently do not align with avoiding drowsy driving. In a 24/7 society, with an emphasis on work, longer commutes, and exponential advancement of technology, many people do not get the sleep they need. Effectively dealing with the drowsy-driving problem requires fundamental changes to societal norms and especially attitudes about drowsy driving. It helps in this respect to take into account the statistical data on drowsy driving effects on the safety, health, and quality of life of the American public, in order to understand just how serios of a risk it poses.
Over 100,000 accidents were due to drowsy driving in 2019, according to data from the NHTSA. 697 people have unfortunately lost their lives due to the same silent assassin. NHTSA’s census of fatal crashes and estimate of traffic-related crashes and injuries attributed in 2017, 91,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers. These crashes led to an estimated 50,000 people injured and nearly 800 deaths. But there is broad agreement across the traffic safety, sleep science, and public health communities that this is an underestimate of the impact of drowsy driving. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in its study that over a three-year period, drowsy driving was a factor in up to 9.5% of accidents. Almost 11% of those crashes were severe enough to require the assistance of the police. In 2013 for instance, the NHTSA estimates there were 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths from drowsy driving. While about half of all U.S. adult drivers admit to driving even when they feel tired. Of drivers 18 and older, an estimated 1 in 25 admit to having fallen asleep behind the wheel. This concerning statistical data speaks for itself.
The effects of drowsy driving are more severe than most people realize. When you are awake for more than 18 hours, the effect on your body is the same as if you had a BAC of 0.05 percent. After 24 hours awake, it’s like having a BAC of 0.10 percent, which far exceeds the legal limit in all states. Considering the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit is 0.08 percent, it means that drowsy driving has the same effect on driver impairments as drunk driving. Some groups in particular are more susceptible to drowsy driving. This includes teenagers and young men in their 20s and 30s, who tend to fall asleep while driving late at night. These accidents most commonly occur between 11 pm and 8 am. Seniors are another group that is more likely to have accidents relating to drowsy driving, with older adults involved in more accidents in the middle of the afternoon. The main effects of drowsy driving are the inability to focus, delayed reaction times, poor judgement, inability to judge distances and speeds, and, of course, falling asleep.
There are certain indications of drowsiness that you may feel, signalling that you should refrain from driving until you have had more sleep. However, driver fatigue may not always show itself in the same form, making it harder for some to detect.
The key warning signs of drowsy driving include:
- You can’t seem to keep your eyes focused;
- You can’t keep your eyes open and keep blinking;
- Your head suddenly feels unbearably heavy;
- These symptoms are particularly dangerous because they are so common, but it is critical that you don’t ignore your body’s signals that it is tired.
Here are the NHTSA prescribed tips on keeping alert while behind the wheel and avoiding drowsy driving:
- Getting adequate sleep on a daily basis is the only true way to protect yourself against the risks of driving when you’re drowsy. Experts urge consumers to make it a priority to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. For more information on healthy sleep, see In Brief: Your Guide to Healthy Sleep at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website;
- Before the start of a long family car trip, get a good night’s sleep, or you could put your entire family and others at risk;
- Many teens do not get enough sleep at a stage in life when their biological need for sleep increases, which makes them vulnerable to the risk of drowsy-driving crashes, especially on longer trips. Advise your teens to delay driving until they’re well-rested;
- Avoid drinking any alcohol before driving. Consumption of alcohol interacts with sleepiness to increase drowsiness and impairment;
- Always check your prescription and over-the-counter medication labels to see if drowsiness could result from their use;
- If you take medications that could cause drowsiness as a side effect, use public transportation when possible;
- If you drive, avoid driving during the peak sleepiness periods (midnight – 6 a.m. and late afternoon). If you must drive during the peak sleepiness periods, stay vigilant for signs of drowsiness, such as crossing over roadway lines or hitting a rumble strip, especially if you’re driving alone.
Of course, as short-term measure of intervention, you cam resort to drinking coffee or energy drinks, yet that alone is not always enough. They might help you feel more alert, but the effects last only a short time, and you might not be as alert as you think you are. If you drink coffee and are seriously sleep-deprived, you still may have “micro sleeps” or brief losses of consciousness that can last for four or five seconds. This means that at 55 miles per hour, you’ve travelled more than 100 yards down the road while asleep. That’s plenty of time to cause a crash. If you start to get sleepy while you’re driving, drink one to two cups of coffee and pull over for a short 20-minute nap in a safe place, such as a lighted, designated rest stop. This has been shown to increase alertness in scientific studies, but only for short time periods. Stay safe!