Driving when drowsy might not seem like a big deal, and many of us have probably done it at one time or another.
But drowsy drivers can be dangerous drivers — sometimes as dangerous as drunk drivers, causing serious or fatal car accidents. One AAA Foundation study found that one in five fatal auto accidents involve drowsy drivers.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggested that up to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy driving. The CDC also reported that an estimated one in 25 adult drivers report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days.
Why Is Drowsy Driving Dangerous?
Drowsy driving is very dangerous because it can result in fatal car crashes and serious injuries. It is difficult to precisely nail down exact drowsy driving statistics because estimates rely on the police and hospital reports. If a driver fell asleep, veered into the wrong lane, and was killed in a car accident, there is usually no clear way to determine that they were, indeed, asleep at the time.
In referencing its own stats on drowsy driving crashes, the NHTSA reported, “But there is broad agreement across the traffic safety, sleep science, and public health communities that this is an underestimate of the impact of drowsy driving.” However, the dangers of drowsy driving are acknowledged by all three of these communities.
Who Is Most Likely to Be Involved in a Drowsy Driving Accident?
Drowsy drivers aren’t just exhausted working parents or single moms. They’re also truck drivers, business travelers, people with sleep disorders, shift workers, young drivers (under the age of 25), medical staff, and law enforcement officers.
They may be driving next to you during your daily commute to work or passing you out there on the open road as you travel to visit relatives. And if they haven’t had enough sleep and are driving while drowsy, you could be at risk.
When Do Most Accidents Involving Sleepy Drivers Occur?
As you might expect, drowsy driving crashes tend to occur later at night – between midnight and 6 a.m. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also reports that these type of accidents also occur in the late afternoon, when the human body typically experiences a dip in its circadian rhythm which regulates sleep.
Is Drowsy Driving as Dangerous as Drunk Driving?
The National Sleep Foundation reports that being awake for 20 hours is the same as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% – the federal limit for which drivers 21 years or older can legally drive. So, yes, drowsy driving can be just as dangerous as drunk driving.
Can You Be Cited for Drowsy Driving?
Only two states (Arkansas and New Jersey) currently have laws against drowsy driving, but several states have pending legislation aimed at increasing the public’s awareness of the dangers of driving while drowsy.
How Little Sleep Is Too Little Sleep?
The risk of being in a car accident increases as the sleep you get during a 24-hour period lessens. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported the following increased crash risk for sleep-deprived drivers compared to drivers who slept more than seven hours:
|Hours of Sleep||Resulting Crash Risk|
|6-7 hours||1.3 times greater risk|
|5-6 hours||Almost twice the risk|
|4-5 hours||4.3 times the risk|
|Less than 4 hours||11.5 times the risk|
Warning Signs of Drowsy Driving
There are many indications that you might be drowsy or in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. According to the National Sleep Foundation, here is how to tell if you are too tired to drive and need to stop in a safe place and rest.
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
- Daydreaming or having wandering or disconnected thoughts
- Trouble remembering the last few miles driven or missing exits or traffic signs
- Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
- Feeling restless and irritable
Risk Factors for Drowsy Driving Accidents
To prevent a driving drowsy accident, you should know what factors contribute to tiredness when driving. Drowsy driving statistics tend to increase when drivers are:
- Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia), poor quality sleep, or a sleep debt
- Experiencing sleep-deprivation or fatigue (6 hours of sleep or less triples your risk)
- Driving long distances without proper rest breaks
- Driving through the night, mid-afternoon, or when you would normally be asleep
- Taking sedating medications (anti-depressants, cold tablets, antihistamines)
- Working more than 60 hours a week (which can increase your risk by 40%)
- Working more than one job/the main job involves shift work
- Drinking even small amounts of alcohol
- Driving alone or on a long, rural, dark, or boring roads
Warning Signs Another Driver Is Driving While Tired
If you notice the following conditions, you may be driving near a drowsy driver:
- Vehicle randomly drifting between lanes
- Car traveling at erratic speeds
- Vehicle hitting rumble strip on side of road
What to Do if You’re Too Tired to Drive
To avoid sleep-deprived driving, take the following safeguards:
- Stop driving altogether and go to sleep in a safe place, if possible.
- Take a 15- to 20-minute nap at a lighted, designated rest stop.
- Have a caffeinated drink in combination with a nap, but keep in mind that caffeine can take up to 30 minutes to kick in.
Adequate Sleep and Planning
Plan ahead and research drowsy driving prevention tactics before taking a long trip. Here are four simple precautions to take to try to ensure you are well-rested before you hit the road:
- Get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night if you are an adult, and 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours if you are a teenager.
- Bring someone along. They can share the driving, help keep you awake, and help you notice when you’re tired.
- Every couple of hours or 100 miles, stop and rest. Get out of the car and stretch.
- Don’t drink alcohol in any amount, as it increases the effects of fatigue. And avoid taking medications that may impair your driving.
If You Are Involved in a Drowsy Driving Accident
If you are involved in a car crash caused by a driver who appeared to be asleep at the wheel before the crash, don’t wreck twice. Take the following steps to try to protect yourself:
- Call the police and ask them to respond to the crash site.
- Tell the investigating police officer you suspect the other driver was asleep.
- Take photographs of the accident scene. Make sure to take photos of skid marks (or lack of skid marks) caused by the other vehicle. Lack of skid marks are often telltale signs of drowsy driving.
- Talk to witnesses. If someone saw the crash, get their full name, address, email address, and phone number, and ask them to talk to the police at the scene.
- Seek immediate medical attention, even if you feel fine. Sometimes you won’t feel the effects of injuries until the next day – or even longer.
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