While you may not realize it, drowsy driving is a big problem on our nation’s roadways. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than 100,000 vehicle crashes are caused by drowsy driving each year. You’d likely be hardpressed to find a driver these days that has not gotten behind the wheel at some point knowing that they were a bit too tired to drive. With the constant demands of living in a 24/7 society, it can be difficult to maintain a routine sleep pattern and make sure you are getting enough rest on a daily basis. We all know it is not easy but it is important.
State lawmakers and law enforcement agencies agree and as a result some, including the state of Washington, have taken big steps to address the problem of drowsy driving in the last several years. Both Arkansas and New Jersey have recently enacted laws that make it a felony for a fatigued driver to cause a vehicle crash that results in a fatality. Similar proposals have been presented in New York and Washington state as well. While the bill has not yet passed in Washington state, law enforcement agencies have taken advanced measures to identify drowsy drivers on the road and have implemented emphasis patrols for this week to highlight Drowsy Driver Prevention Week across the state.
With all of the local initiatives that have been put into action in an effort to bring heightened awareness to this issue, it is important to understand and be able to identify some of the most common risk factors and warning signs for drowsy driving. Keep reading to find out the 4 most common risk factors for drowsy driving and find out how you can prevent the potentially catastrophic consequences of getting behind the wheel when fatigued.
4 Common Risk Factors and Warning Signs for Drowsy Driving
1) Sleep Deprivation or Fatigue
Okay, so this may seem like a no-brainer. If you haven’t gotten enough sleep, it is more likely that you will be drowsy while driving. While most would agree that this is a fairly obvious risk factor, not many actually take it very seriously when making the decision to get behind the wheel. Studies show that being awake for more than 20 hours results in an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08, the legal limit in all states. Similar to alcohol and drugs, sleep deprivation impairs driving skills like hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and awareness of surroundings. Approximately 11 million drivers admit that they have had a crash or near crash because they dozed off or were too tired to drive (2005 Sleep in America poll).
How to Prevent It: Again, while the answer may seem fairly obvious, the easiest way to address the risk factor of sleep deprivation is to make getting the right amount of rest a priority. Sleep is as vital to our well-being as food and water are, yet many put it last on their list of priorities. Be good to yourself and make time for sleep. If you have a long drive ahead of you, make sure you get a good night’s rest beforehand and schedule breaks along the way so you don’t get too fatigued. If you find that you are getting sleepy while you are driving, even for a short time, pull over and take a break or a quick nap. Even just a little bit of sleep can make a big difference for your body and your brain and can prevent further drowsy driving risks.
2) Your Age – Young Drivers are at a Greater Risk for Drowsy Driving
Combining inexperience with sleepiness and a tendency to drive at night puts young drivers at a higher risk for drowsy driving. This is especially true for males between the ages of 16 and 25 years. Studies show that only 20% of teens get the recommended 9 hours of sleep on school nights, and nearly 45% sleep less than 8 hours on school nights (National Sleep Foundation’s 2006 Sleep in America poll). In addition, many young folks are juggling a great deal of responsibilities, which makes getting enough sleep a difficult challenge to overcome. Teens often try to manage hefty academic responsibilities, after-school activities, family duties, work tasks, and their social lives. With so much to juggle it’s no wonder teens are regularly sleep-deprived and often drive when they are drowsy. For more information on teen driver issues and concerns, take a look at our previous blog post on National Teen Driver Safety Week.
How to Prevent It: As a parent, you can make sure to keep tabs on your son or daughter’s sleep habits. While it may not be easy to implement a regular bedtime, especially for older children, it can truly benefit them in the long run. If trying to get your teen to stick to a regular bedtime is too difficult, at the very least, try to make sure your teen has appropriate coping mechanisms to deal with an overload of responsibilities so that they don’t deprive themselves of sleep in order to manage all that they are dealing with.
Pulling all-nighters on a regular basis should not be how your son or daughter prepares for school tests or projects. However, if it can’t be avoided try to help them make alternative arrangements for getting to school the next day. Instead of driving themselves when they have had little to no sleep, offer to drive them yourself or help them coordinate a ride from a friend so they are not driving while they are drowsy. Also, don’t forget to talk to your son or daughter about the dangers of drowsy driving. While you may understand the importance of talking to your child about the risks of alcohol or drug use, discussing the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel can be just as impactful for your young driver. Do your best to make time for that conversation now if you haven’t already.
3) Untreated Sleep Disorders
An undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorder can keep you from getting enough sleep on a regular basis, which can make you very tired during the day. Researchers estimate that more than 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. Those that may contribute to fatigue during the day and drowsy driving incidents include: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), insomnia, and narcolepsy. It is estimated that 12 million people in the United States have OSA. In addition according to the National Sleep Foundation, people with untreated obstructive sleep apnea are up to 7 times more likely to have a drowsy driving crash. If you suffer from a sleep disorder your sleep patterns can become fragmented or disrupted on a regular basis, which can result in an accumulated “sleep debt” over time. That “sleep debt” must be repaid at some point in order for your body to continue functioning at an optimum level. Unfortunately, your body may involuntarily address an accumulated “sleep debt” at unexpected times, such as behind the wheel of a car.
How to Prevent It: The best thing you can do to prevent drowsy driving incidents that result from a sleep disorder is to get treatment from a physician. If you notice any symptoms of a possible sleep disorder, contact a doctor as soon as possible so you can get treated. If you notice that you are starting to fall asleep during the day or you are nodding off during everyday activities despite getting 8 hours of sleep on a regular basis, a sleep disorder could be to blame. In addition, if you have irregular breathing or increased movement during sleep you could be suffering from an undiagnosed sleep disorder that can impact your driving abilities.
Sometimes it can be difficult for the person experiencing these symptoms to recognize them, but they be more noticeable to a spouse or family member. If you tend to exhibit any or all of these behaviors on a regular basis, make sure to get in touch with your doctor to see if you may have a sleep disorder. Treatments are readily available for most disorders and can be very helpful for yourself and other drivers you interact with on the roadways.
4) Late or Early Morning Driving
If you drive late at night or early in the morning you may be more likely to fall asleep at the wheel simply because your body’s internal clock (controlled by your brain) is telling it that it’s time to go to sleep. Consider this: Your body has an internal clock that triggers certain involuntary behaviors at specific times throughout the day in order to maintain your physical well-being. For example, you may be surprised to learn that your hormone signals, general alertness, and body temperature changes throughout the day at certain times without you even knowing it. These physical changes are completely involuntary and we have very little control over their occurrence.
The good news is that although we can’t control our internal clock we can trust that it knows what is it doing and is ultimately trying to keep our body functioning at the highest level. One way it does this is by following circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are cycles in your body that occur in 24-hour patterns. Your internal clock follows these circadian rhythms to make you feel sleepy or alert at regular times every day. You must have sleep to survive and for your body to function properly so to keep you from staying up for days on end, your brain induces symptoms of sleepiness in a regular pattern to make you rest regardless of whether you want to or not.
Generally, our bodies become sleepy at night and again in the middle of the day. It is most natural for your body to go to sleep when it is dark outside, which is why most people often have a very difficult time trying to fight off sleep at night even when they are well-rested. This also explains why most vehicle crashes caused by drowsy driving occur between midnight and 8:00 AM. However, our internal clock also makes us sleepy during the middle of the day. While this helps explain why some folks can’t seem to pass up a little afternoon nap or why they might need a caffeine refill around mid-day, it also supports statistics that show falling asleep at the wheel regularly occurs between 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM.
How to Prevent It: So what can you do to combat this? I’m sure we all know that when it’s time for bed, it’s not very easy to fight your body’s natural instincts to sleep. The simple answer is to try and avoid driving at night it possible. If you must drive at night, make sure you get plenty of sleep beforehand so you can stay more alert behind the wheel. In addition, while it is most definitely not a replacement for proper, restful sleep, consuming a little caffeine can be helpful at times. A small amount of caffeine can help give your body a short boost that may help you stay more alert. However, keep in mind that everyone reacts to caffeine differently and you need to be careful with how much you consume and how often you consume it as well. It can be a good idea to also take a short nap just after consuming caffeine as well. Taking a nap gives your body a chance to get a bit of rest, which it will likely respond to even better than the caffeine itself, and it will allow time for the caffeine to kick in too. Just try to keep in mind that while caffeine consumption can be helpful for a quick boost in alertness its effects are only short term. Caffeine cannot replace your body’s need for sleep and ultimately the best way to prepare for driving at night is to stay well-rested.
A few more things to consider …
People who are fatigued or don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis have a higher risk of falling asleep at the wheel. This is especially true for commercial drivers that spend long hours on the road and people that work late shifts. According to the National Sleep Foundation, working the night shift increases your risk for drowsy driving by nearly 6 times! Those that work more than 60 hours per week or who are rotating-shift workers need to extra mindful of their driving behaviors since their sleep patterns will likely be disrupted on a regular basis. Individuals that drive for a living, especially for long periods of time such as long haul commercial truckers, are much more likely to have fall-asleep crashes. In addition, if you are a business traveler you might spend more time on the road compared to the average commuter and you might experience jet lag. Crossing time zones can throw of your body’s internal clock and cause confusion for your body as to when you should be sleeping and when you should be awake. Both of these factors can contribute to an increased risk for drowsy driving accidents so make sure that you get plenty of rest if you plan to be operating a motor vehicle.
Ultimately, the biggest thing to remember is this: accidents caused by drowsy driving are preventable. We all know that feeling tired while driving is likely to occur at some point during our lives but that does not mean we should actively choose to drive that way on a regular basis. In this day and age we all have a great deal of responsibilities to manage but regardless of how busy we may keep ourselves, we must make sure to take care of our bodies and make sleep a priority on a regular basis. Staying well-rested will not only help our bodies function more efficiently, it can help to prevent a possible accident or injury caused by drowsy driving. Keep in mind that if you fall asleep at the wheel and cause an accident, even one that does not involve any other vehicles or drivers, you could be seriously injured. In addition, if you display signs of drowsy driving while behind the wheel — whether an accident has occurred or not — you could be cited with Negligent Driving in the 2nd Degree or Reckless Driving by law enforcement. The bottom line is: drowsy drivers put everyone on the road in danger. If you consider the information and tips in this article seriously you can help prevent unnecessary catastrophes on the roadways in the future. So get your rest so you can stay safe and stay alert at the wheel. Your safety is worth it.
- Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006.