Drowsy drivers are more prevalent—and more dangerous—than you may think.
It’s no surprise that Americans are exhausted. After all, the stress of living in a 24/7, fast-paced society doesn’t exactly make it easy to be well-rested. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s not uncommon for people to brag about how little sleep they get by on.
So people are tired—but are they also dangerous?
When it comes to driving, many are. You don’t have to pass out at the wheel for there to be a problem since even small yawns can take your mind off the road and dull your reaction time. Then there’s also “microsleeping,” four- to six-second snoozes you might not even be aware you’re taking when you drive drowsy.
An alarming issue
Drowsy driving crashes are especially scary because they’re more likely1 to cause injuries and fatalities than other types of crashes. That’s because drowsiness impairs drivers’ reaction time, vision, hand-eye coordination, awareness, decision-making, judgment and inhibition.
And it affects a driver more than you probably think. Being awake for 24 hours straight is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10 percent. (The legal limit is 0.08 in all states).2 What’s more, having just one beer when you’re running on four hours of sleep is the same as downing an entire six-pack.3
The lethal combination of driving and drowsiness is shockingly common considering the fact that:
- 60 percent of Americans admit to driving while feeling sleepy at least once in the past year.
- 37 percent said they’ve nodded off at the wheel.4
- Drowsy driving is behind about one in eight crashes that send people to the hospital and one out of every six deadly accidents.5
- Most estimates peg fatal drowsy driving crashes at 6,000 per year.6
Who’s at risk?
Though anyone who skimps on sleep is liable to be a drowsy driver, some people are more prone to fall asleep at the wheel. They include:
- Young people (Only 20 percent of teens get the recommended nine hours of sleep each night while college students average less than six hours per night.)
- Shift workers on the job for long stretches or through the night
- Commercial drivers
- Business travelers
- People with undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorders
- People who work more than 60 hours a week
Drowsy driving accidents usually involve solo male drivers whose vehicles run off a high-speed road. These kinds of crashes are most likely to happen between midnight and dawn or in the mid-afternoon. Unlike other accidents, there are no skid marks or other signs that a driver tried to brake at the site of a drowsy driving accident.
Signs you need more shut-eye
Your body gives you plenty of warning signals that it’s running on empty. If you find yourself doing any of the following, pull over ASAP.
- Having difficulty focusing, blinking frequently and feeling like your eyelids are heavy.
- Daydreaming or having wandering or disconnected thoughts.
- Having trouble remembering the last few miles you drove; missing exits or traffic signs.
- Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes.
- Having trouble keeping your head up.
- Drifting from your lane, tailgating or hitting a rumble strip.
- Feeling restless and irritable.
What’s a driver to do?
There’s a lot you—and, believe it or not, some cars—can do when it comes to staying awake and alert behind the wheel.
For starters, many of today’s new cars issue warnings when you’re leaving your lane or tailgating another car.7 Other models feature systems that urge drivers to rest if they detect a change in their driving style. “If a driver always drives in the left lane but cuts over suddenly to the right lane, the system may respond,” says Wade Newton, director of communications for Auto Alliance, an organization that represents 12 major auto makers.
One car that features the technology Newton describes is the 2013 Ford Fusion and its Lane Keeping System. Its inside camera monitors lane markings at all hours of the day; if you drift out of line, the steering wheel will vibrate in order to jolt you awake. Other models go a step further by automatically steering your car back where it belongs.
Meanwhile, Mercedes Benz and its Attention Assist technology employ a sophisticated tracking system that gauges your unique driving style. By comparing more than 70 data points such as how often you operate your car’s controls to the smoothness of the road, it’s able to sound an alarm when it notices a change in driving.
That said, an ounce of no-tech prevention is always the best place to start. Use these safe driving tips:
- Get a good night’s sleep—i.e. seven to nine hours—before a big drive.
- Stop driving during your normal sleep times.
- Take a break at least every 100 miles (or two hours).
- Avoid driving alone for long distances and consider taking turns with a buddy.
- Find a safe place to take a 15- to 20-minute nap if you’re feeling tired. (Research continues to tout the benefits of power naps.)
- Swear off alcohol and meds that induce drowsiness. (These include several kinds of cold tablets, antihistamines and antidepressants—so always check your medication labels to be sure.)
Two things that research shows aren’t very effective? Turning up the music and opening the windows. Then there’s caffeine: While it’s true that a cup or two of java can up your alertness for several hours, it takes about half an hour for the stimulant to do its job. The solution? Pull over somewhere safe and take a quick nap until it kicks in.
Prolonged periods of feeling wiped out may be a sign that you need to change your lifestyle, have a doc review your medications or request a sleep study. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that adequate rest is a luxury instead of a necessity that could save your and others’ lives.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Drowsy Driving – 19 States and the District of Columbia, 2009-2010
2 National Sleep Foundation Key Messages/Talking Points on Drowsy Driving
3 National Sleep Foundation Key Messages/Talking Points on Drowsy Driving
4 National Sleep Foundation: Drowsy Driving
5 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety: Asleep at the Wheel: The Prevalence and Impact of Drowsy Driving, November 2010
6 CDC: Drowsy Driving: Asleep at the Wheel
7 You can see how this works at www.youtube.com/user/driverassists