DRUNKEN DRIVING and distracted driving grab headlines, but drowsy driving is potentially an equally lethal combination. More than one in five fatal crashes involve driver fatigue, according to new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“It’s clearly an under appreciated problem,” says Ameriprise Auto & Home Insurance president Ken Ciak. “The media does a great job highlighting the dangers of drinking and driving, or, lately, texting and driving, but drowsy driving doesn’t get the same attention; therefore, people don’t understand the warning signs or potential repercussions.”
Lack of evidence
Unlike alcohol, fatigue does not leave behind physical evidence, leading safety experts to suggest the problem is more prevalent than accident statistics indicate, since few sleep-deprived drivers admit to nodding off at the wheel.
“The problem with crash reports is a police officer can’t pull up to a crash scene and say fatigue was involved, because the evidence is gone the second the crash happens,” says Zac Doerzaph, director of the Virginia Tech Center for Advanced Automotive Research.
Too often drivers endanger themselves and others because they misjudge their ability
to overcome fatigue and underestimate the impact sleepiness has on driving performance. “Everybody likes to think they’re strong and they’re tough and they can will themselves to stay awake,” says Brian Tefft, senior research associate for the AAA Foundation.
“But research shows on average you have to be out for two to four minutes to realize you were just asleep, whereas it only takes two or three seconds for something catastrophic to happen if you are asleep at the wheel.”
People who sleep six to seven hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as those who sleep eight hours or more, according to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The same study found that sleeping less than five hours increases the risk of a drowsy-driving accident four-fold.
“Your performance declines beyond 16 hours awake, and it keeps getting worse,” says Allan Pack, director, Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “When you get to 20 hours without sleep, you are performing as would somebody with a blood-alcohol limit [of 0.08 percent, the legal limit for driving under the influence in all 50 states].”
Teenage drivers, who often are balancing school, extracurricular activities and part- time jobs, are particularly at risk, with some studies showing half of all fatigued-driving crashes involve drivers 25 or younger.
Denise Pope, a lecturer in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, says parents can take steps to reverse that statistic. She recommends “pulling the car keys” if your child gets less than six and a half hours of sleep on any given night.
“We would not let our kids drive drunk home from a party, yet we let them drive extremely sleep-deprived to school,” Pope says.
In addition to young adults, people who work long hours, shift workers, commercial drivers and those with untreated sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea are most at risk for sleep-related accidents.
New driving laws
Some states have passed fatigued-driving laws that result in sleep-deprived drivers being charged with vehicular homicide if they are involved in a fatal accident. New Jersey’s Maggie’s Law was enacted in 2003 following the death of Maggie McDonnell, a 20-year- old who was killed in a head-on collision by a driver who had been awake for 30 hours.
Technology may play a role in getting drowsy drivers off the road. Mercedes-Benz and BMW are among the car manufacturers offering warning systems that prompt fatigued drivers to take a break. Connected vehicle technology, wireless technology that enables vehicles to communicate with each other and the infrastructure around them, could one day provide another remedy. In the meantime, Tefft argues that drowsy driving should accelerate to the top of the nation’s traffic safety agenda.
“This is an issue that deserves the same level of attention and resource allocation as alcohol, speeding and seat-belt use,” he says. “Right now, quite frankly, it isn’t treated as such.”
Andrea Downing Peck is a freelance writer from Bainbridge Island, Washington.