The Dangers of Drowsy Driving: What You Need to Know

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August 8, 2019

Drowsy driving can be just as serious of an issue, if not more so, as distracted driving, aggressive driving, and road rage. Drowsy driving is when a driver continues operating a motor vehicle of any kind while being cognitively impaired by lack of sleep or sleep deprivation. Other factors, such as sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea, side effects of medication use, alcohol or drug abuse, can also contribute to drowsy driving. In this article we’ll explain the many dangers of driving while tired and we’ll offer tips for how to avoid and prevent drowsy driving.

What Is drowsy driving?

Drowsy driving occurs when you operate a motor vehicle while you are so tired that your brain is cognitively impaired. Part of what makes driving while tired so dangerous is that it can be difficult to identify when it’s actually happening. Drivers may not even realize they’re too tired to drive until it’s too late.

Warning signs of drowsiness:

  • Repetitive or excessive yawning
  • Drifting in and out of your lane
  • Not maintaining a consistent speed
  • Frequently rubbing your eyes or blinking.

Research indicates that drowsy driving is as serious as driving under the influence of drugs or drunk driving. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), driving without enough sleep can seriously impact reaction times, at the same level as a driver considered legally impaired (with a blood alcohol of 0.08%) in the United States. This is part of the reason why there are federal regulations that limit the hours of service (HOS) drivers can log during a given time period. HOS laws exist to prevent drowsy truck drivers from being on the road. The FMCSA states that regulations are needed because, according to laboratory tests, most drivers are not good at estimating their own level of tiredness.

Why Is drowsy driving dangerous?

Again, recent research suggests that drowsy driving is as dangerous as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, if not more in some cases. You could easily damage your car, hurt someone else, or even lose your life if you fall asleep at the wheel. The dangers of driving while cognitively impaired due to sleep deprivation are very real and come with high consequences.

Drowsy driving is more prevalent than you may realize, and we may never fully know how often people are too tired to drive, as it can be difficult to measure. Still, it’s important to understand the scope of this issue. Many crashes are caused each year due to tired rivers, leading to injuries and deaths that can be attributed to drowsy driving.

Drowsy driving statistics:

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  • 1 in 25 adult drivers report having fallen asleep while driving in the past 30 days (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - CDC)
  • Driving after more than 20 hours without sleep is equivalent to driving with an over the limit blood-alcohol concentration of .08% (NSC)
  • 21% of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver (AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety / iii)
  • $109 billion is the societal cost of fatigue-related crashes with fatalities and injuries (Governor's Highway Safety Administration - GHSA)
  • Most drowsy driving accidents occur between midnight and 6 a.m. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - NHTSA)
  • Many motor vehicle crashes that occur involve a single driver with no passengers running off of the road and no evidence of braking (NHTSA)

Who Is most at risk of drowsy driving?

Anyone can get sleepy behind the wheel, but certain groups are at a significantly higher risk of drowsy driving than others. Long-haul and commercial drivers, new parents, young drivers, and night shift workers need to be aware that they are at a higher risk of falling asleep behind the wheel than other populations.

Commercial drivers need to prioritize driving safety, including not driving while tired, because they spend so much time on the road, often in larger (and potentially more dangerous) vehicles. Commercial drivers are almost always alone on the road and often drive during nighttime. Driver management software can send alerts to drivers in near real time if they begin to engage in unsafe driving behavior, like speeding, hard braking, or harsh acceleration. Timely alerts can help a driver realize they need to slow down or take a break. The alerts will also be sent back to fleet managers so they can coach safer driving behaviors.

Drowsy driving prevention

Drowsy driving is entirely preventable, and it’s fairly simple for drivers to take precautions to avoid it. Below are some tips and tricks that you can use to avoid drving drowsy:

  1. Establishing healthy sleep habits - 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night is recommended by the National Sleep Foundation
  2. Taking breaks or 20-minute naps at a safe place like a rest stop when you need them
  3. Consuming caffeine to be more alert if you can’t stop or rest
  4. Avoid other types of drugs and alcohol

There are many ways drivers can stay alert while on the road including staying hydrated, packing snacks, using air conditioning, and more. Fleet managers should encourage long-haul and commercial drivers to keep accurate notes of their sleep and rest breaks on the road using newly mandated e-logging devices.

Fleet managers should consider installing dash cams in your fleet that can alert you to any issues that arise on the road and may provide valuable insight to the state of the driver in the event of an accident.

Drowsy driving is a critical safety issue. It can affect any driver, but it is especially important for commercial drivers and fleet managers — and directly implicated by both your compliance solutions, and the associated federal regulations.

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