Drowsy driving happens when a driver experiences fatigue as a result of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, medication or other impairments that cause them to become tired - putting themselves, their passengers or other motorists in danger. Drowsiness can cause drivers to lose focus while on the road, slow their reaction time to unexpected situations or hazards, and inhibit them from making sound decisions.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Sleep needs vary from person-to-person, but in general, most adults need about seven hours of sleep, while teenagers and young adults need eight hours or more. Unfortunately, only about 40% of people sleep seven hours or more each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The less you sleep, the more likely you will be involved in an accident. Sleeping five hours or less increases the chances of being in a wreck by more than four times. Four hours of sleep or less triples that risk. Even sleeping just one hour less than normal can increase your chances of being involved in a car accident and research often shows that drowsy driving is just as hazardous as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In 2013, the National Traffic Highway Safety Association (NHTSA) found that driver fatigue accounted for about 72,000 accidents, 44,000 injuries, and 800 deaths. But since these statistics often rely on police reports and self-report surveys, the number of accidents caused by drowsy driving is likely higher than many realize. A 2015 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed data from the NHTSA and estimated 7% of all crashes and 16-21% of fatal crashes involved drowsy driving. This suggests that an average of 5,000 people - not 800 - are killed in fatigue-related motor vehicle crashes each year.
Who's Most at Risk and Why?
Available data suggests that certain groups of people are more likely to experience sleepiness while driving:
- Men are more likely to experience driver fatigue than women.
- Young drivers between the ages of 18-29 are 71% more likely to be involved in sleep-deprived-related crashes. While more resistant to falling asleep and biologically prone to staying up later, most young adults only get about an average of 5-7 hours of sleep because of early school hours, late work shifts, consuming alcohol or drugs, and using electronics at night. Because of their resilience, young adults are much more likely to fall asleep at the wheel without warning.
- Shift workers who work swing or graveyard shifts are likely to fall asleep behind the wheel. This includes shifts lasting 20-40 hours or more, which is common among emergency workers and healthcare personnel. Anyone who works more than 60 hours a week is 40% more likely to be involved in a drowsy driving accident.
- Commercial drivers (tow trucks, tractor trailers, buses, etc) are frequently at-risk for drowsy driving since they have to spend long hours behind the wheel. Of the commercial drivers involved in a collision, 13% admitted to being tired when the accident occurred. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) discourages commercial drivers from operating a vehicle between the hours of 12 am - 6 am and 2 pm - 4 pm, time periods when our bodies circadian rhythms naturally make us sleepy.
- Business travelers and airline workers flying to different time zones often experience fatigue or sleeplessness (commonly referred to as jet lag). International travel and flights that leave early in the morning or late at night, in particular, can take a toll on your sleep schedule. You can avoid the risk of drowsy driving by using a taxi, shuttle, or other car services. Airline workers should also consider carpooling or ride-sharing. Avoid alcohol, tobacco and stimulants while flying, to mitigate the effects of jet lag.
- Drivers with sleep disorders that are untreated or those who are taking medication are more prone to drowsiness. Sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea and narcolepsy. If you think you have a sleeping disorder, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. If you are taking medication, whether it's to treat a sleeping disorder or other condition, read the warning labels and avoid driving after consumption. Medications that cause drowsiness include:
- Hypnotics and sleep aids
- Narcotics and pain relief pills
- Some high blood pressure medications
- Cold medicine
- Some antihistamines
- Muscle relaxers
Of course, everyone is at-risk of drowsy driving if they don't get enough sleep. The odds of an accident also increase if you are alone in a vehicle and/or driving on rural roads or highways at night.
- Yawning or blinking frequently.
- Your head feeling fuzzy or heavy.
- Your eyes hurting or twitching.
- Difficulty focusing or remembering the last few miles.
- Missing your exit or traffic signals.
- Drifting from your lane.
- Tailgating other drivers.
- Hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road.
What Not to Do
You may be tempted to consume coffee or other caffeinated items to boost your energy and alertness and this may work - temporarily. Drivers who are critically sleep deprived and consume caffeine may experience "micro-sleeps" which are brief losses of consciousness that can last 4-5 seconds. More than enough time to crash. One or two cups of coffee and a short nap can increase your alertness, but there is no substitute for a full night's rest.
Other tricks that aren't very effective are using tobacco, turning up the radio and rolling down the windows. The burst of energy you will receive is temporary. The best thing you can do is to let someone else drive or get off the road and go somewhere safe. Keep in mind that it is dangerous and illegal to stop on the shoulder of a freeway or highway in order to sleep.
What You Can Do
Many drowsy-driving accidents involve a single vehicle and a lack of skid marks, meaning the driver had passed out and was unable to avoid the collision at all. Roadsides sometimes feature rumble strips or plastic bumps to alert drivers when they've drifted off the road but there's only so much traffic authorities can do. Therefore, most of the responsibility lies on the driver's shoulders.
Here's how you can prevent drowsy driving:
- Get enough sleep: Practice good sleeping habits and stick to a sleep schedule.
- Bring a friend: A licensed passenger can take over driving duties if you start to feel sleepy.
- Take a nap: Rest areas are a safe way to snooze and refresh yourself while on the road.
- Drive during the day: You're naturally more awake during daylight hours and the sunlight stimulates your brain. Healthy amounts of Vitamin D also help you sleep better at night.
- Use an app: Smartphone apps like Drowsy Driver monitor drivers' eyes while mounted on the dashboard.
- Avoid drinking alcohol or taking sleep-inducing medications: Always check your medication's side effects and talk to a pharmacist or doctor if you have questions. If you do take medications that cause drowsiness, try to use public transportation if possible.
- Check into a room: If there aren't any rest areas, find a hotel or other roadside lodging. If you don't want to stay for very long, ask if they offer an hourly rate.
Other ways to temporarily fight-off drowsiness:
- Listen to music: Energetic music is a great way to boost your mood and energy, especially if you are by yourself.
- Chew gum: Chewing gum can stimulate your senses and is a safer alternative to messy snacking but, like coffee, its effects are temporary.
- Get fresh air: Opening a window, getting out of the car at a rest stop or adjusting vent controls can lower carbon dioxide levels and decrease the chance of drowsy driving.
- Moderate your caffeine intake: Coffee, chocolate and energy drinks are tasty but they don't guarantee wakefulness. When in doubt, find a place to rest.
What to Do If You're Hit By a Drowsy Driver
Driving while sleep-impaired is a citable offense in Georgia, but like distracted driving, it is hard to prove unless the other party admits fault. If you are involved in car accident and suspect a driver was drowsy or asleep at the wheel, give Gary Martin Hays & Associates a call at 770-394-8000 or 1-800-WIN-WIN-1 for a free evaluation of your claim.