The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at least 100,000 crashes reported to police are the direct result of driver fatigue each year. These crashes result in an estimated 1,500 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in monetary losses. While people may have different definitions of drowsy driving, most experts agree that drowsy driving is simply driving in a physical state in which the driver’s alertness is appreciably lower than it would be if the driver were well rested and full awake.
Driving while tired is very dangerous, because a driver who falls asleep may crash head-on into another vehicle, a tree, or a wall, at full driving speed, without making any attempt to avoid the crash by steering or braking. The inability of a sleeping driver to try to avoid crashing makes this type of crash especially severe. In fact, drowsy drivers sometimes drive so poorly that they might appear to be drunk. Some studies have found people’s cognitive abilities to be as impaired after twenty-four hours without sleep as with a blood alcohol content of .10%, which is higher than the legal limit for driving while intoxicated conviction in all U.S. states. In a survey of police officers, nearly 90% of responding officers had at least once pulled over a driver who they expected to find intoxicated, but turned out to be sober but drowsy.
Some warning signs you may experience that signify drowsiness while driving include:
• The inability to recall the last few miles traveled • Having disconnected or wandering thoughts • Having difficulty focusing or keeping your eyes open • Feeling as though your head is very heavy • Drifting out of your driving lane, perhaps driving on the rumble strips • Yawning repeatedly • Accidentally tailgating other vehicles • Missing traffic signs
Certain groups of people are more at risk for drowsy driving than others, simply due to their lifestyle.
• Young People: Sleep-related crashes are most common in young people, especially those who tend to stay up late, sleep too little and drive at night. A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that young drivers are more than four times more likely to have sleep-related crashes than are drivers over age 30.
• Shift Workers and People with Long Hours: Shift workers and people who work long hours are at high risk of being involved in a sleep-related crash. The human body never fully adjusts to shift work, because the body’s sleep and wake cycles are dictated by light and dark cycles.
• People with Sleep Disorders: Approximately 40 million people are believed to suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. Many sleep disorders cause excessive daytime sleepiness, which raises the risk of sleep-related crashes.
In order to avoid drowsy driving, drivers should get a good night’s sleep, plan to take long trips with a companion, take regular breaks, avoid alcohol and medications and consult a physician if you frequently experience daytime sleepiness. By taking these steps, drivers can significantly reduce the chances of falling asleep at the wheel.