The decision to get behind the wheel or stay on the road despite feeling drowsy can be deadly.
A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, “Wake Up Call! Understanding Drowsy Driving and What States Can Do,” points out that nearly 83.6 million sleep-deprived Americans are driving every day. And it’s taking a toll — an estimated 5,000 lives were lost in drowsy driving-related crashes in 2015.
Drowsy driving is not a new traffic safety problem. However, the recognition of drowsy driving as a significant public health and traffic safety issue has only recently been made a priority. In March 2015, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced the agency would take a comprehensive approach to preventing the tragedies attributed to driver drowsiness or fatigue.
The NTSB added human-fatigue to its current list of most wanted transportation safety improvements just this year. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2020 program, the nation’s roadmap for better health, includes sleep as a priority initiative and calls for a reduction in drowsy driving crashes coupled with an increase in the proportion of high school students and adults who get sufficient sleep.
Clearly, the nation’s lack of sleep and its impact on driving is a threat to all drivers on the road and contributes to the increasing number auto insurance claims. The challenge is educating and engaging the public in order to create behavior change.
Keep reading to learn more about the epidemic of getting behind the wheel while impaired by lack of sleep:
Crashes involving sleepy drivers often involve a driver traveling alone at night. (Photo: iStock)
Common characteristics of drowsy driving crashes
- They occur late at night, in the early morning hours or in mid-afternoon.
- They are likely to result in serious injury or death.
- They involve a single vehicle leaving the roadway.
- They occur on high-speed roadways.
- They involve a driver traveling alone.
- There is no evidence of braking.
Drowsy drivers have impaired judgment and loss of visual awareness. (Photo: iStock)
Negative impact of lack of sleep
Drowsy driving is impaired driving. The extreme danger posed by tired drivers has prompted NHTSA to expand its definition of impaired driving to include not only drunk, drugged and distracted, but also drowsy.
Drowsy drivers have:
- Slower reaction times.
- Impaired judgment.
- Increased levels of risk taking.
- More frequent blinking/eye closure.
- Deficits in cognitive performance.
- Memory impairment.
- Attention failure.
- Loss of visual awareness.
In this March 12, 2011 file photo, emergency personnel investigate the scene of a bus crash on Interstate 95 in the Bronx borough of New York. Prosecutors in New York alleged the driver, Ophadell Williams, was all but asleep at the wheel, but a jury decided there was not enough proof to convict him. Although police can prove that someone is under the influence of drugs or alcohol while behind the wheel, proving a person to be too fatigued to drive is not as easy. (Photo: David Karp/AP Photo)
Who drives tired?
No one is immune from drowsy driving, but teens and young adults are particularly vulnerable.
- It is estimated that drivers 25 years of age and younger are involved in more than half of drowsy driving crashes annually.
- People who work night shifts and/or long or irregular hours, including first responders (e.g., police, fire, EMS), doctors and nurses, and commercial motor vehicle operators, are at high risk for drowsy driving.
- A study of nearly 5,000 North American police officers, found that sleepiness is a common problem with 46 percent reporting falling asleep while driving.
- It is estimated that 10 percent to 20 percent of crashed involving at least one truck or bus may have involved tired drivers.
- Many people who suffer from sleep disorders are undiagnosed and untreated, which means they may not recognize they are having problems with alertness or drowsiness when driving.
Related: 7 back-to-school driving safety tips
Laws that address impairment — including drowsy driving — must be enforceable. (Photo: iStock)
Drowsy driving laws
Only two states — New Jersey and Arkansas — have enacted legislation that expressly addresses motorists who drive drowsy and subsequently injure or kill someone.
New Jersey’s statute, known as Maggie’s Law, took effect in 2003. It is named for a 20-year-old college student who was killed by a driver who had not slept in 30 hours and smoked crack cocaine. The crash led to two trials resulting in the driver receiving a $200 fine and a suspended jail sentence since driver fatigue could not be considered as a factor by either jury.
The statute deems driving “while knowingly fatigued as recklessness” and defines fatigued as “being without sleep for a period in excess of 24 consecutive hours.”
Arkansas’ law, like New Jersey’s, defines fatigue in the same way, but also adds “or in the state of being asleep.” In both states, law enforcement has had limited success convicting drowsy drivers under these statues.
While sleep advocates are encouraging other states to follow Arkansas and New Jersey’s lead, the effectiveness of these laws is still up for debate. While the GHSA has not adopted an official position on states enacting drowsy driving laws, the association notes that any law that addresses impairment — including drowsy driving — must be enforceable.
Vehicles drive on a two-lane highway with rumble strips, a safety feature to alert drivers who are veering off the road. (Photo: iStock)
Engineering improvements to make roadways and vehicles safer
Rumble strips: Raised or grooved patterns placed on the roadway surface that produce both a loud noise and a vibration when a vehicle’s tires travel across them are a proven and cost-effective tool for reducing drowsy-driving crashes. When placed along the shoulder of the road, they alert drivers when they are drifting or about to run off the road. When placed along the centerlines, they make drivers aware that they have crossed into an opposing travel lane.
Installation of rumble strips is inexpensive compared to other infrastructure improvements (about $1,000-$1,500 per mile).
Evaluations indicate that they can reduce lane departure crashes by 50% or more, depending on the location.
Median cable barriers: Made of three or four steel cables strung on posts, when a vehicle hits this barrier, the posts break and the cables flex, absorbing much of the crash force. This redirects the vehicle along the median, preventing a cross-median crash.
They are much less expensive to install compared to concrete and metal beam barriers ($140,000-150,000 per mile versus $400,000-500,000 per mile).
Most states that have installed cable median barriers report a decrease in cross-median crash fatalities of 90 percent or more.
Rest areas. A rest area provides tired motorists a place to safely pull off the road and take a nap. Sleep is the most effective countermeasure for combating drowsy driving. Numerous studies point to the importance of rest areas for helping to make driving safer, however, they are typically located on interstates rather than rural roadways where there may be few or no places to safely pull off the road.
A number of websites such as Interstate Rest Areas and RoadNow and free or low-cost apps for both Apple and Android devices are available to assist motorists locate rest areas on roadways across the United States.
Vehicle technology. Automotive manufacturers and researchers have developed technologies that detect variations in driver performance and issue a drowsiness warning. These systems, which go by names such as Attention Assist, Driver Alert, Driver Attention Alert, Lane Departure Warning, and EyeSight, all essentially work the same. However, they are typically not sold as standard features, but available as upgrades to base models or on higher-end vehicles, thereby limiting their adoption.
There are other in-vehicle technologies that, while not specifically designed to prevent drowsy driving, can be helpful in preventing crashes resulting from sleepy drivers who fail to react or see a danger. For instance, adaptive cruise control senses where a vehicle in front of you is relative to your own vehicle, and slows down and speeds up your vehicle to maintain consistent spacing. Forward collision mitigation, meanwhile, detects how far and fast the vehicle in front of you may be moving and automatically applies the brakes if you do not respond.
Forward Collision Warning systems alert you when your vehicle is about to collide with another vehicle some distance ahead of yours. The warning varies by vehicle (e.g., flashing light, alarm, vibration), but unlike Forward Collision Mitigation, forward collision warnign systems do not automatically apply the brakes. Lane departure warning is perhaps the technology that has the most applicability to drowsy driving prevention. It works by looking at the road’s lane markings and alerts the driver, via an alarm or vibration in the steering wheel or seat, when he or she unintentionally drives to close to the lane edge.
Schedule frequent breaks on long trips; stop every two hours or 100 miles. (Photo: iStock)
Life-saving tips for avoiding drowsy driving:
- Be well rested before hitting the road. Several nights of fewer than seven or eight hours of sleep slows your reaction time, resulting in a sleep debt. It may take several nights of being well rested to repay that debt and make you ready for a long road trip.
- Avoid driving between midnight and 7 a.m. and in the mid-afternoon, times when we are naturally the least alert and most tired.
- Don’t drive alone. If possible, travel with a well-rested passenger who can engage you in conversation and share the driving.
- Schedule frequent breaks on long trips; stop every two hours or 100 miles.
- Don’t drink alcohol. Just one beer when you are sleep deprived mimics the effect of two or three when you are well rested.
- Don’t rely on caffeine to keep you awake.
Make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. (Photo: iStock)
Tips for getting a good night’s sleep
- Establish and stick to a seven-day a week sleep schedule. Sleeping later on the weekends makes it harder to get out of bed on Monday.
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, but not two or three hours before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine late in the afternoon or evening; its effects can take up to eight hours to wear off.
- Avoid nicotine. It’s a stimulant that causes people to sleep lightly and wake early in the morning because of nicotine withdrawal.
- Avoid alcoholic drinks before bed, which can rob you of sleep and impair breathing.
- Avoid large meals and beverages late at night, which can cause indigestion and frequent urination, respectively.
- If possible, avoid medications that delay or disrupt sleep. Talk to your doctor if any drug you are taking is keeping you up. Ask if you can take it at other times during the day or early evening.
- Don’t take naps after 3 p.m. They can make up for lost sleep, but late afternoon naps make it harder to fall asleep at night.
- Relax before bed. Read, listen to music or engage in some other relaxing activity.
- Take a hot bath before bed; it drops your body temperature and helps you feel sleepy and more relaxed.
- Have a good sleeping environment, one that is cool, comfortable and technology-free. (When was the last time you changed your mattress and/or pillow?) If you have a clock by your bed, turn the face so you do not worry about the time while trying to fall asleep.
- Have the right sunlight exposure. Get outside at least 30 minutes a day and turn down the lights before bedtime.
- Don’t lie in bed awake. If you are still awake after 30 minutes or starting to feel worried or anxious, get up and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy.
- Consult a doctor if you continue to have trouble sleeping. You may have a sleep disorder or another physical or mental health condition that may be impacting your sleep.