Car and Driving Safety: The Dangers of Drowsy Driving

What Is Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy driving is the act of getting behind the wheel while you feel tired or fatigued.  It is when drivers get behind the wheel while cognitively impaired by lack of sleep. Lack of sleep is a major cause of motor vehicle accidents, and it impairs the brain as much as alcohol can.

Nobody knows when drowsy driving will take over and render them asleep at the wheel. When you drive drowsy, you are less apt to pay attention to the road. You have a slower reaction time in the event you must brake or steer suddenly. Also, your decision-making skills are affected in a negative way.

Many drivers believe they can make it. They believe that if they can simply focus on the task at hand, they will be fine. Often, that is not enough. The driver may veer into the other lane, hits a rumble strip, or worst of all - hit another car or pedestrian.

You do not have to be a drowsy driver.  By understanding and knowing the signs, steps can be taken so that you and others have a safe drive.

Who Is at Risk?

Check to see if you fall into the following categories. If so, take steps to help yourself stay awake and alert during your drives.

Commercial Drivers/Truckers

A lack of sleep is a major cause of semi-truck accidents. This is not limited to big rig drivers, however. If you drive a taxi or for a company whose operations run around the clock, like Uber or Lyft, you may also be at risk.

Young Drivers

Affecting males especially, young peoples’ lifestyle choices and behaviors contribute to them being drowsy drivers. A combination of staying up late, alcohol consumption, and long hours of work or studying are some factors. Another is that young people are more likely to engage in risky behavior.

Business Travelers

Coming from a flight and being jet-lagged and climbing into a car is a recipe for disaster. Many business travelers press on for fear of being late or missing an appointment.

People with Sleep Disorders

An untreated sleep disorder like sleep apnea or insomnia can cause you to be tired during the day, leading to accidents caused by drowsy driving.

General Population

Many of us are always on the go. Parents have to work and take kids to sports, some of us have multiple jobs, and some work strange hours. Others do not have the luxury of sick days and must make their way to work under the influence of medicine that makes them drowsy.

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Facts and Statistics

Here, some facts can be examined regarding the phenomenon of drowsy driving. By knowing these numbers, motorists can be more aware and avoid becoming another statistic:

By the numbers

The fact of the matter is that drowsy driving can kill. In the year 2015 alone, it claimed 824 lives. Over 72,000 crashes reported by police involved drowsy driving. This led to 41,000 injuries and hundreds of deaths.

Time of day

These accidents tend to occur between midnight and 6 am, or late afternoon. These are the times of the day people experience dips in their circadian rhythms or the body’s way of regulating sleep.

Location

They tend to occur on rural roads and highways. They often involve only a single driver with no passengers who run off the road at high speed with no evidence of brake usage.

60% of adults in the US, during a 2005 poll, reported that they had driven a vehicle while drowsy in the past year. 37% of those also reported actually falling asleep at the wheel. 

The cost of these incidents is staggering: in August 2016, the Governor’s Highway Safety Association reported that drowsy driving fatal and injury accidents totaled $109 billion. That cost does not include property damage costs. 

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Disorders That Can Lead to Drowsy Driving

If you have an untreated sleep disorder, like narcolepsy, sleep apnea, or insomnia, you are at a greater risk for drowsy driving.

Narcolepsy sufferers can nod off at a stoplight, while they are stuck in traffic during congestion, or even while driving along the highway. It takes only seconds for sleep to take over the body and the motorist to lose control of the vehicle.

Those with insomnia also pose a risk. One study conducted by the American Academy of Sleep showed that people with insomnia were able to drive safely in the first portion of a one-hour simulated driving test that started at 6 am. Compared with those who got good sleep, drivers with insomnia experienced a greater sense of impairment after only 20 minutes of driving.

Finally, those with sleep apnea are also at risk. Twenty-eight percent of truck drivers are estimated to be affected by sleep apnea. 

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Warning Signs

If you think you are getting drowsy while driving, or think you have experienced it before, have a look at these warning signs. By knowing the signs, you can know when it is time for a break, or just avoid driving altogether.

  • Difficulty in keeping eyes open and focused. Sometimes, you think you see things that are not there
  • Hitting rumble strips on the side of the road
  • Drifting into the other lane, jerking your vehicle back into the correct lane
  • Difficulty is maintaining speed, missing road signs
  • Repeated yawning
  • Having wandering thoughts, similar to the funny/unusual ones we have before we sleep

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Preventing Drowsy Driving

The best way to prevent drowsy driving is to know how to stop it. By putting these methods into practice, commutes and trips will be safer and more comfortable for all.

  • If on a long trip, schedule breaks every 100 miles or 2 hours.
  • Make it an early night to bed if you know you will be traveling. Take a nap before you drive.
  • Take a passenger with you to keep you alert, talk to you, and switch places with you if needed.
  • Consume a caffeine beverage to keep you up, like coffee or cola.
  • If you can, simply take the bus, taxi, or Lyft/Uber where you need to go.
  • If you can find a safe place to pull over and catch a nap, do so.
  • Do not be fooled by tricks like “turning up the radio” or “rolling the window down.” While they may be helpful for a few minutes, they will not stop you from drifting away to sleep.

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Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources you can use in your fight against drowsy driving.

You will find a place to get brochures and publications with helpful info as well as some interesting infographics on the Tennessee Traffic Safety and New York State Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee websites. Visit the Governors Highway Safety Association for drowsy driving activities. Share these resources with friends and family to raise awareness of drowsy driving dangers. It might just save a life.