Wake Up to the Risk of Drowsy Driving

The press has extensively covered the risks – real and perceived – associated with driving while talking on the phone. There is another major and more widespread impairing condition that has received comparatively little attention: fatigue.

Drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving. Sleepiness slows reaction time, decreases awareness, and impairs judgment.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an estimated 800,000 to 1.88 million drivers have been involved in a crash related to drowsy driving in the past five years.

Who Is Nodding Off?

Many Americans are sleep deprived. Almost a quarter of us average less than six hours a sleep a night. Most people need a consistent eight hours a night. Young people actually need more sleep – an average of nine hours a night.

It is easy to develop a sleep deficit without even realizing it due to working night-shifts or two jobs, balancing a demanding job and home life, or suffering an undetected sleep disorder. Alcohol and medications, including over-the-counter cold and allergy cures, can also increase drowsiness.

Stress, illness, emotional strain, and boredom can also drain energy. It's understandable that fatigue catches up with almost all of us behind the wheel sometimes.

Nearly 40 percent of drivers surveyed by NHTSA admitted they have nodded off behind the wheel at least once. Eight percent said they had done so in the past six months. These incidents may be "micro-sleeps" – dozing that spans just seconds. These momentary lapses can be fatal.

When Are You Most At Risk?

Nearly half of accidents attributed to drowsy driving happen between 9pm and 6am. The biological urge to sleep peaks after midnight. However, many people also experience a slump in the middle of the afternoon, particularly after a heavy lunch.

Drivers who have had less than six hours of sleep the night before or who have remained awake 20 hours or more are at high risk of falling asleep at the wheel. Driving a monotonous route also puts you at risk. On a long, straight road with no signals or billboards it is easy to let the purr of the engine and hum of the tires lull you into a less alert state.

Be aware of warning signs, including:

  • Trouble keeping your eyes open
  • Daydreaming
  • Yawning
  • Drifting from your lane or tailgating
  • Missing signs or exits
  • Irritability and restlessness

Could You Have a Sleep Disorder?

If you are constantly tired, you may have a sleep disorder such as apnea. Not only do people with sleep apnea feel constant fatigue, their health is also jeopardized because their body is not receiving enough oxygen throughout the night.

Chronic insomnia, restless legs, and narcolepsy are other sleep disturbances that could put you at risk as a driver. Your doctor can refer you to a specialist who can diagnose and treat sleep disorders.

Drowsy Driving Tips

Pulling over for a nap isn't always an option, so drivers report they combat sleepiness by opening a window, drinking coffee or soda, and turning up the volume on the radio. Most of these strategies will help only momentarily, if at all. The body's need for sleep will soon override the brain's wish to remain awake.

The experts recommend:

  • Get a good night's sleep before a road trip.
  • Protect yourself from glare with sunglasses.
  • Avoid alcohol and heavy meals.
  • Stop at least every two hours for rest, a stretch, and a light snack.
  • Travel with a passenger and take turns driving.
  • If you feel drowsy, pull over to a well-traveled area. Roll up windows and lock doors. Turn off your engine. Rest for 20 minutes or so, then walk a few minutes to be sure you are completely awake. Have some caffeine before you go back on the road.

Don't take chances with drowsiness. Sleepiness can creep up suddenly and without warning, putting you at high risk. If you begin to sense that you are at all tired, stop driving and continue your journey when you are refreshed.

Want More Information?

  • Your AAA club can provide additional information and educational materials about drowsy driving.
  • The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has published an informative pamphlet on drowsy driving, and has additional information available on its Web site. (www.aaafoundation.org).