The National Sleep Foundation has chosen November 1-8 as Drowsy Driving Prevention Week. According to a poll, 60% of adult drivers in America said that they had driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy, and over a third reported falling asleep at the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that driving while drowsy causes roughly 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths per year.
Drowsy driving can be as bad as driving under the influence
Studies have found that drivers who are too sleepy cause almost as many accidents as drunk drivers. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that 21% of fatal crashes in the United States are caused by drowsy drivers, and the number is rising as Americans work longer hours and get less sleep. Even the Mythbusters experimented with drowsy driving; the two sleep-deprived Mythbusters found that their driving suffered more after 30 hours without sleep than it did after they had downed multiple shots of alcohol. Drowsy drivers can experience a dangerous condition called microsleep, in which they doze off for a few seconds and wake back up without even realizing that they weren’t watching the road.
There are plenty of laws on the books aimed at combating drunk driving. Police officers can test the blood and breath of drivers who have been drinking, and DUIs come with hefty fines and even jail time. Bars and restaurants are discouraged from selling liquor to obviously intoxicated patrons by dram shop laws, which make businesses liable for damages a drunk driver might cause after getting behind the wheel. But no breathalyzer test exists for drowsy driving, so police have few ways of getting dangerous drivers off the road before they cause an accident.
What can be done to prevent drowsy driving?
Shift workers with rotating shifts or significant overtime, commercial drivers and young people are most at risk for drowsy driving. Undiagnosed and untreated sleep disorders, like insomnia and sleep apnea, can contribute to daytime drowsiness and increase the risk of microsleep episodes.
The National Sleep Foundation urges drivers not to get behind the wheel when they’re too tired to safely operate a vehicle. If you feel that you’re too drowsy to drive safely, stop driving, take a nap, and drink a beverage containing caffeine. Public transit, taxi cabs and rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft are all safe alternatives to driving while drowsy. If you regularly feel too tired to drive safely, talk to a doctor about sleep disorders.
Even though drowsy drivers aren’t under the influence of anything besides their own sleep deprivation, courts have found that falling asleep at the wheel is negligent driving. Multi-million dollar settlements have been awarded to victims of crashes caused by a driver who was asleep or sleepy at the wheel. Don’t become a statistic. Make sure you’re alert enough to be on the road.