The Dangers of Drowsy Driving

Causes, prevention, and tips for staying alert at the wheel

By Alesandra Woolley

Drowsy driving, also referred to as fatigued driving, occurs when an individual becomes too sleepy to properly operate a motor vehicle. It is often caused by sleep deprivation; however, driving while drowsy can also manifest as a result of untreated sleep disorders, medications, alcohol consumption, or shift work. Drowsiness slows the reaction time of the driver, decreases awareness, and limits the driver’s ability to focus. Imagine an individual in this state behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound hunk of metal traveling at 70 mph down the freeway. Scary, right? Although fatigued driving is a national threat, many people fail to understand the scope of the problem.

Drowsy Driving: A Nationwide Problem

According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll, 60% of Americans have driven while feeling sleepy and 37% (108 million people) admit to actually having fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year. If that’s not enough to convince you of the seriousness of the problem, consider these shocking stats:

  • 21% of all fatal crashes involve a fatigued driver (http://school.sleepeducation.com)
  • It’s estimated that driving while fatigued plays a role in 328,000 crashes annually. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that each year there are 100,000 police-reported crashes that were a result of drowsy driving (nsc.org)
  • One Gallup poll estimates that 7.5 million drivers have nodded off while driving in the past month (nhtsa.gov)

Let’s get one thing straight—drowsy driving is a form of driving while impaired. In fact, drowsy driving is just as life-threatening as drunk driving. According to the National Safety Council, getting behind the wheel after going more than 20 hours without sleep is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08% – the U.S. legal limit. The difference between drunk driving and drowsy driving is there is no test for drowsiness. Therefore, most drowsy driving accidents go unreported unless the driver admits to dozing off.

The Costs of Drowsy Driving

Putting lives in danger is not the only consequence of drowsy driving. In fact, accidents caused by drowsy drivers cost the US government an estimated $109 billion annually, not including property damage.

This price tag was calculated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association by using the average number of drowsy driving crashes each year and the estimated costs of these crashes that include lost productivity, medical costs, legal and court costs, emergency service costs and insurance administration costs.

Although the costs of these accidents are hefty, nothing can account for the loss of life due to a preventable accident.

This begs the question what’s the root cause of such dangerous (and expensive) accidents?

The Causes of Drowsy Driving

Drowsiness at the wheel can be caused by a number of things. However, the number one cause of drowsy driving accidents is sleep deprivation.

According to the CDC, 30% of the United States population, or 40.6 million adults, are sleep deprived. The leading cause of sleep deprivation in America is shift-working, which is defined by a work schedule that takes place outside of the traditional 9 to 5 workday. Nearly 45% of the workforce is comprised of shift workers.

Sleep deprivation is also a result of untreated sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea. Seventy million American adults suffer from some type of sleep disorder. Of those 70 million, 30% suffer from sleep apnea, which goes untreated in most cases because the sleeper is unaware of their disorder.

Other causes of drowsy driving include:
  • Alcohol consumption – a sedative
  • The use of medications prior to driving
  • Driving for long periods of time without rest

Signals You May Be Too Sleepy to Drive

Drowsiness can often overcome a driver quickly and identifying signs of fatigue can be difficult. In some cases, drivers may enter a stage of microsleep which is defined as a short, involuntary burst of inattention. When traveling at highway speed, you can drive the length of a football field during a stage of microsleep that lasts only four or five seconds.

Familiarize yourself with these common signs of drowsiness to prevent drifting off or entering microsleep at the wheel:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Frequent blinking or heavy eyelids
  • Daydreaming — a wandering mind or disconnected thoughts
  • Trouble recalling the last few miles driven
  • 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

Experiencing any one of these should indicate to the driver it’s time to pull off and rest.

Tips for Staying Alert While Driving

Arriving at your destination will never be urgent enough to put your life and others at risk. If you experience any of the above symptoms of drowsiness, pull over immediately. In the meantime, follow these tips to stay alert while on the road.

Recruit a Co-pilot

Research conducted by UCLA found that 82% of drowsy driving accidents took place when the driver was on the road alone. When possible, bring a friend along on your journey to keep you company. If bringing a friend along for the journey isn’t an option, consider giving one a call when on the road.

Road Trip Hack: When I feel my eyes getting heavy on the road, I always call my mom or a friend! The conversation focuses my mind and gives me something to concentrate on rather than letting my mind wander.

Utilize Rest Stops

The purpose of rest stops is in the name—to rest. Our government has poured thousands of tax dollars into creating these safe spaces for drivers to pull off the highway and park for a short driving break. Don’t be ashamed to pull off and take a quick power nap before hopping back on the road.

Listen to Music

Music isn’t guaranteed to keep you alert on the road, but it can help. Just make sure to listen to something upbeat and resist blasting it so loud you damage your eardrums.

Road Trip Hack: Sometimes I find my mind wandering or dozing off even when listening to music I love. I’ve found the familiarity with music can cause me to check out, going in one ear and out the other. When this happens, I’ll turn on a podcast because it gives me something to engage with and think critically about. Other times, I’ll assume full-on concert mode because singing rather than listening keeps me engaged.

Get Some Fresh Air

Did you know the carbon dioxide in our cars can make us sleepy? Every once in a while, roll down the windows and get a breath of fresh air to increase oxygen flow.

Blast the AC

Sometimes driving in a warm, cozy car makes me sleepy. When I find myself getting too relaxed, I’ll blast the AC to jerk me out of relaxation mode. If this doesn’t work, roll down the windows or splash some cold water on your face!

Get Your Blood Pumping

To further increase your alertness, try doing some cardio! Physical activity like jumping jacks, hopping in place or body weight squats are a great way to get your blood pumping and reverse your body from entering sleep mode.

Grab a Snack

If your energy is down, pull off and grab some food. Your instincts may be to fuel your body with a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar for the caffeine, but a high-energy snack, like almonds, hummus, or berries, will be more effective when it comes to increasing alertness.

The Ultimate Prevention: Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

The good news about drowsy driving is that it’s 100% preventable. Despite the causes of your sleep deprivation, follow these tips for getting adequate hours of sleep consistently.

  • Set a bedtime and stick to it
  • Limit blue-light emissions before bed
  • Avoid caffeine after 3 pm
  • Take a warm bath 30 minutes before bed
  • Avoid spicy foods, fatty foods, and sugar before bedtime
  • Begin to wind down an hour before bed each night by dimming the lights, stashing the screens and doing some light stretching.

Whatever works for you, getting quality sleep could be a matter of life or death.

What to do if You Get in a Car Accident Caused by Drowsy Driving

If you find yourself involved in a car accident, collect information of the other drivers involved in the accident once the scene is safe and you’ve checked for injuries.

You’ll need to collect:

  • The names and contact information of all drivers and passengers
  • Vehicle descriptions (make, model, year)
  • Driver’s license numbers
  • License plate numbers
  • Insurance companies and policy numbers
  • Eyewitnesses: names and contact information
  • Accident scene location and/or address
  • Police officer’s name and badge number.

Additionally:

  • Make sure to take photos of all vehicles involved and the accident scene
  • Do not sign any document unless it’s for the police or your insurance agent
  • Don’t tell anyone the accident was your fault, even if you think it was

Next, notify your insurance agency as soon as possible to file a claim. They will handle it from there!


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