Drowsy Driving: The Impairment That Can Impact Anyone

June 12, 2014

Media attention, research dollars, and awareness campaigns often target distracted driving and drunk driving as serious impairments that can impact drivers of any age. Another type of driving impairment that receives less attention, but whose prevalence and consequences are also significant, has suddenly been thrust into the national spotlight. That impairment is drowsy driving.

This past weekend, a limousine driving comedian and actor Tracy Morgan and a group of fellow passengers was struck by a truck driver who may not have slept for the previous 24 hours, resulting in the death of one passenger and injuring four others. To put this impairment in perspective, according to the National Sleep Foundation, being awake for 18 hours is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of 0.08, which is legally intoxicated.

As an emergency medicine physician, I frequently work evening and overnight shifts and have felt the effects of not being completely rested while driving. Unfortunately, this is a far too common occurrence on the road. Although it is challenging to measure the true prevalence of drowsy driving, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 2.5-15% of fatal crashes and 2-33% of non-fatal crashes involved drowsy drivers, and one recent survey showed that 4.2% of drivers reported having fallen asleep while driving at least one time in the previous 30 days.¹

Self-awareness is key when it comes to preventing drowsy driving. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep each night, while adolescents require 9 or 10 hours. If you or someone you’re driving with has not adequately rested, pay close attention to the warning signs of drowsy driving. These can include yawning or blinking frequently, difficulty remembering the past few miles driven, missing an exit, drifting from the lane, or hitting a rumble strip. Research has shown that most fatigue-related crashes are caused by drivers under 25 years of age, so particular attention should be paid to young drivers. Parents should monitor their child’s sleep habits and not allow him or her behind the wheel if drowsy.

Although you may never text and drive or get behind the wheel when intoxicated, it is likely that you have been a passenger of a drowsy driver, or have driven while drowsy yourself. Knowing the dangers and the consequences of drowsy driving is key to behavior change. In addition to the direct impairments, driving while drowsy can also increase the existing risks of distracted driving², and can put all road users at risk, including child passengers.³ Make sure that the driver of any vehicle in which you ride is adequately rested; you may just save a life from this often forgotten but potentially deadly cause of crashes.

 

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Drowsy driving - 19 states and the District of Columbia, 2009-2010. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2013 Jan 4;61(51-52):1033-7.

2. Anderson C, Horne JA. Driving drowsy also worsens driver distraction. Sleep Med. 2013 May;14(5):466-8.

3. Macy ML, Carter PM, Bingham CR, Cunningham RM, Freed GL. Potential distractions and unsafe driving behaviors among drivers of 1- to 12-year-old children. Acad Pediatr. 2014 May-Jun;14(3):279-86