Drowsy driving is the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue. This usually happens when a driver has not slept enough, but it can also happen due to untreated sleep disorders, medications, drinking alcohol, or shift work. It makes drivers less able to pay attention to the road.
More than 6,000 people die in drowsy driving-related crashes in the US each year. Millions of US drivers fall asleep at the wheel each month, and roughly 15 percent of all fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver, researchers note in the journal Sleep.
The Dangers of Drowsy Driving
According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 60% of Americans claim to have driven while feeling sleepy and 37% admitted to falling asleep at the wheel in the past year
Drowsy driving in many states is being cited in the same class as intoxicated driving. Both types of drivers exhibit similar impaired cognitive functions whether under the influence of alcohol, or driving after being awake for more than 24 hours. The article Drowsy Driving: Asleep At the Wheel states that, "after about 24 hours awake, impairment is equivalent to a BAC of 0.10%, higher than the legal limit in all states."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 2.5% of fatal crashes and 2% of injury crashes involve drowsy driving. Although it is believed the estimates may be a bit conservative and that up to 5-6 thousand fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy driving.
What are the warning signs of drowsy driving?
- Persistent yawning
- Unable to keep your eyes open
- Feeling like you're "nodding off"
- Can't remember the last few miles of driving
- You miss road signs or miss your exit
- You drift from your lane, hit rumble strips, or catch yourself tailgating other drivers
Who is most at risk?
- The Young. Drivers under 30 years old (especially males) are considered the age group most likely to be involved in drowsy driving accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "drivers younger than 30 accounted for almost two-thirds of drowsy-driving crashes, despite representing only about one-fourth of licensed drivers. These drivers were four times more likely to have such a crash than were drivers ages 30 years or older."
Theories as to why young drivers are highest risk to drive while tired are many, but the most prevailing theories are that young people have different sleep needs. Especially teenagers, who experience delayed sleep phase syndrome in which they naturally feel tired later at night and require more sleep and need to sleep in longer, but rarely report getting consistent quality sleep. Add to it cultural and social lifestyles that demand more school work, increased after school activities, after school jobs, late night socializing, or sleep loss from being new parents, makes this the most likely group to experience traffic accidents related to fatigue.
- Shift workers. Our society has evolved to be able to run on a 24 hours a day, 7 days a week schedule. Many jobs and industries require staff to work around the clock and keep strange hours.Typical shift work jobs include firefighters, police officers, medical personnel, retail clerks, truckers, pilots, and many more. Unfortunately, while society has evolved to meet the demands of consumers, human biology has not, and many shift workers have difficulty getting consistent, quality sleep.Shift workers includes workers with schedules atypical to the usual 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. This includes people who work nights, early mornings, late afternoons, and those with rotating shift schedules. Shift work can lead to a condition known as shift work sleep disorder.
- Rotating shifts have been found to cause the most severe sleep disruptions for workers out of all the shift types.
Drivers with untreated sleep disorders. Drivers with untreated sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and narcolepsy run a higher risk than the average driver for fatigued driving accidents. In both OSA and narcolepsy the most common symptom is excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). Furthermore, studies have shown that those with more severe sleep apnea were far more likely to be in an accident than those with mild sleep apnea.
State Laws and Education Pertaining to Drowsy Driving
As drowsy driving garners more research and national attention, state laws, policies, and procedures have been adopted to reduce such risk. However, in most states, there is no specific citation for drowsy driving, but most fall under the individual state's unsafe driving laws, reckless driving laws, or distracted driving laws. Charges in accidents can vary from reckless driving to negligent homicide and manslaughter.
Some states do however have specific drowsy driving laws. New Jersey for instance has a law stating that drivers who have been awake for more than 24 hours are considered to be driving recklessly, in the same class as intoxicated drivers.
13 states have adopted driver's license restrictions for motorists with untreated sleep disorders including: California, Conneticut, Florida, Iowa, and Maine.
More state laws and bills concerning drowsy driving can be found here.
It's not just states that have taken to passing restrictions on drowsy driving as they pertain to sleep disorder. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lists untreated obstructive sleep apnea as a disqualifying medical condition. However, pilots with diagnosed OSA who are under the care of their physician and Aviation Medical Examiner may fly.
The greatest prevention of accidents from fatigued driving isn't in lawmaking, but in educating the public. Many states have taken to educating their drivers about the dangers of drowsy driving:
- In Florida, the state passed the "Ronshay Dugans Act" declaring the first week of September as "Drowsy Driving Week."
- Massachusetts marks the second week of November as "Massachusetts Drowsy Driving Prevention Week."
- Some states have training for police officers in identifying fatigued drivers: Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, and many others.
- Many states have drowsy driving information mandated in their driver education courses and/or in their driver's manual including the state of Alaska's driver's manual (see page 56).
What You Can Do
The problem with drowsy driving is that it's not always clear to the driver whether they're driving safely or not. Many people may not realize how fatigued they really are, and may falsely believe that they can fight through the urge to fall asleep. Many drivers may have the attitude "I've done this a hundred times, and never had an accident," but the truth is, it only takes one brief moment of losing concentration on the road for disaster to strike.
- Plan your driving during times when you're most awake.
- If you know you're going to take a long drive, attempt to take a nap before leaving.
- If you begin to feel drowsy while driving, ask another passenger to drive.
- If possible, pull over at a rest stop for a few hours.
- Consume caffeine. Caffeine has been proven to promote alertness in tired people, but the effects may only last up to an hour.
- Don't stare straight ahead. Move your eyes around and focus on things near and far.
- Seek treatment for any possible sleep disorders. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy has been proven the most successful therapy for obstructive sleep apnea, and certain drug treatments have been shown effective for narcolepsy.
- If you're a shift worker, talk to your employer about your schedule, or inquire about taking brief 10-30 minute naps during your shift.
- If working a rotating schedule talk to your employer about moving your next shift "forward" as it's easier on the circadian rhythm to sleep in a little more rather than less.
If you have ever experienced difficulty staying awake while driving, or often feel tired during the day, there is a chance that your symptoms may be due to an untreated sleep disorder. At the Alaska Sleep Clinic, we treat thousands of Alaskans every year for sleep disorders, and for many patients the most common complaint is chronic drowsiness. Give us a call today and we can help you start sleeping better so you can drive safer.