Dangers of Drowsy Driving
After some shocking statistical revelations, a new public health campaign is underway seeking to warn drivers, especially teens, about the dangers of drowsy driving. While everyone knows sleep is important, the impact of insufficient rest is often less obvious. We know that skimping on sleep can be bad for health, but several studies have shown that drowsiness actually creates a level of impairment on par with or above that of alcohol intoxication, complete with slowed reactions, difficulty maintaining attention, impaired memory, and poor judgement.
Paired with automobiles, drowsiness is recipe for disaster, responsible for upwards of 100,000 accidents and over 1,550 fatalities per year. Though this epidemic affects all ages and walks of life, young adults are at particular risk. Keep reading to learn more about the dangers of drowsy driving and what you can do prevent it.
Dangers of Drowsy Driving in Numbers
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Automobile Association (AAA), and several other organizations have all been working to call attention to the dangers of drowsy driving recently. To highlight just how big this problem is, consider these facts and statistics:
250,000 – The number of drivers who fall asleep at the wheel EVERY DAY according to the director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
100,000 – The number of accidents per year which can be conservatively attributed to drowsy driving, resulting in 40,000 injuries and 1550 deaths according to the NHTSA.
60% – The percent of drivers who admitted to driving drowsy in the past year in a National Sleep Foundation survey. 37% admitted to actually falling asleep at the wheel
28% – The percent of drivers surveyed by AAA reporting they had difficulty remaining awake while driving at some point during the previous month.
17% – The percent of deadly crashes attributable to a drowsy driver, according to AAA.
24 hours – After being awake 24 hours, cognitive impairment is similar to or worse than having a Blood Alcohol Content of 0.10% according to a study in the Occupational and Environmental Medicine journal, which is above the the legal limit in the U.S. At even 17-19 hours of being awake, impairment mirrors a BAC of 0.05 (the equivalent of 2-3 drinks).
More Drowsy Driving Facts:
- 20% of commercial pilots and 18% train operators admitted to making a serious mistake due to drowsiness.
- Half of all truck driver fatalities may be attributed to drowsiness according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
- Drowsy driving is implicated in 17% of driving fatalities, 13% of crashes that require hospitalization, and 7% that require the services of a tow truck. A lack of skid marks is one of the signs that is used to determine whether a driver fell asleep before an accident.
- Almost 90% of police officers have pulled over drivers who they believed were driving under the influence, only to realize they were driving while drowsy according to a 2005 AAA survey, and 93% of surveyed officers believed drowsy driving was a significant problem for operators of passenger cars.
Here’s a segment from the Today Show explaining some of the of the dangers of drowsy driving:
The story behind Maggie’s Law: a young woman was killed by a drowsy driver, sparking her family to campaign for stricter punishments for drowsy drivers in New Jersey:
The danger of driving tired from the perspective a another parent whose child was taken by woman who was driving drowsy:
Another story from a husband whose drowsy driving took the life of his wife:
Who is at Risk?
Based on an in depth AAA survey comparing habits of drivers who’ve had sleep-related accidents to those who have not, the following are the strongest risk factors for drowsy driving:
- Drivers under 26, particularly males
- Working night shifts
- Working more than 1 job
- Working more than 60 hours per week
- Commercial drivers and business travelers
- Not getting enough sleep. Compared to those who slept 8 or more hours per night, those who slept 7-8 hours had a 1.2-times higher risk, 6-7 hours 1.8 times higher, 5-6 hours 3.3 times higher, and less than 5 hours a 4.5 times higher risk of a drowsy driving accident.
- People who report poor sleep quality, or who may have untreated sleep disorders
- Drivers who spend a large portion of time driving between 12AM to 6AM.
- People who were awake for more than 15 hours.
- People that have consumed alcohol are also more susceptible to the dangers of drowsy driving as alcohol exacerbates drowsiness.
Know the Signs of Drowsy Driving
When driving, it can be hard to know you’re too drowsy until it is too late. Familiarize yourself with the warning signs so you know when to pull over, and don’t try to push your limits. Signs include:
- Difficulty focusing or not recognizing where you are.
- Feeling irritable or restless.
- Not remembering the past few moments or miles of driving.
- Missing street signs or exits on familiar roads.
- Hitting rumble bars frequently either in the center of the road or along the edge.
- Drifting off the road or from your own lane.
- Frequent yawning, blinking or having difficulty keeping your eyes open.
- Inability to focus thoughts and mind on driving.
- Microsleeps, or nodding off for a few seconds.
Many drivers surveyed after a sleep-related crash reported not feeling drowsy prior to their accidents, so be aware of how much sleep you’ve had and of your normal sleep patterns and limitations. If you begin experiencing any of these signs, make preparations to pull over and rest as soon as possible. Even falling asleep for a fraction of a second can be catastrophic, and you are putting not only yourself in danger, but any passengers and fellow drivers on the road as well.
Tips for Staying Alert
Remaining alert while driving is important for your own safety as well as passengers and other people who are on the road. While nothing can truly cure drowsiness but adequate sleep, the following tips can help you stay alert while driving:
- Get enough rest the night before driving, especially when taking a long trip.
- Schedule trips during the time of day that you are typically wide awake. Most people should avoid driving between 2-6AM, as this is when most drowsy driving accidents occur due to circadian rhythm changes.
- Travel with a traveling with a passenger and take turns driving if possible.
- Stop and take a break every 100 miles or every two hours, especially on long highways. Get out of the car, stretch and walk around.
- If you notice symptoms of drowsiness, stop at a hotel for the night or pull into a safe rest area or well-lit parking lot for a quick nap.
- Recharge with caffeine. One recommendation proven effective in a study by researchers at the University of Loughborough in the United Kingdom is to drink a cup of caffeinated coffee and then take a 15-30 minute nap to give the caffeine time to kick in. Another French study in the journal Sleep found coffee to be more effective than a 30 minute nap alone especially for middle-aged drivers. However, remember that caffeine’s effects are only temporary and cannot replace a good night’s rest.
- Avoid using medicine that will make you groggy, including sleeping pills the night before a trip. If the medication is essential, allow yourself adequate time to wake up and become fully alert before getting behind the wheel.
- After a long flight, avoid driving as jet lag is a big contributor to drowsy driving. Take a shuttle or cab from the airport and plan time to rest when you arrive.
- Don’t rely on the fresh air, cold/heat, or your radio to keep alert.
Improve Sleep Hygiene to Avoid Dangers of Drowsy Driving
Better sleep can decrease the occurrence of drowsy driving by helping you stay well-rested and alert all the time. Sleep hygiene is the practice of getting healthy, quality rest, and it tenants include the following:
- Schedule adequate time for sleep on a daily basis. Most people require 7-9 hours of sleep (with teens requiring 9-10 hours), so plan to go to bed early based on the time you have to wake up in the morning to ensure adequate sleep time. Sticking to consistent schedule will help prevent daytime drowsiness, and has also been linked with healthier body weight.
- Take a warm bath before bed to help your body relax and enhance drowsiness.
- Eat a light snack before bed, but avoid heavy meals that interfere with sleep quality.
- Turn off lights before bed and use light blocking shades. It is also suggested to turn off electronics like TVs, phones, computers and tablets well before bedtime.
- Use a sound conditioner or earplugs if noise disturbances are an issue.
- Replace your mattress if you have difficulty finding a comfortable position, if it sags or hammocks, or if you wake up in pain. Mattresses have an average lifespan of 6-10 years.
- If you still feel chronic drowsiness and fatigue despite sleeping 7-9 hours or if you have persistent difficulty falling asleep, consult your health professional.
The dangers of drowsy driving are easy to avoid when you are aware of potential risk factors and the signs of being too tired to drive. Treat drowsing driving just as you would drunk driving, and don’t get behind the wheel tired. If you do, you are putting yourself and other drivers at risk and many states are increasing fines and punishments as well. The best way to stay alert is to practice healthy sleep hygiene and get adequate rest, which also has many additional benefits for your health, mood and happiness. Plan long drives to include plenty of rest breaks, and don’t trust in caffeine, music, or air to keep you up.If you’ve been awake more than 15 hours or if you feel tired or unfocused, remember the safest way to avoid the dangers of drowsy driving is to get off the road!
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