Many drivers in this country forgo sleep, an often ignored and treacherous behavior that results in nearly 83.6 million of them being sleep-deprived while behind the wheel every day, an estimated 5,000 lives lost in drowsy driving related crashes last year. The estimated cost of drowsy crashes, including insurance, medical expenses and lost productivity totaled $109 billion last year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association’s report “Wake Up Call! Understanding Drowsy Driving and What States Can Do About It.” The 73-page report was funded by State Farm insurance. The report, which comes as U.S. motor vehicle deaths were up 7.7 percent nationwide in 2015, found that the extent of the problem is not fully known.
Drowsy driving hasn’t received the attention of drunken or distracted driving, partly because diagnosing the problem is difficult. Many crashes involve a single car and driver, and definitive clues as to the cause are lacking. Police cited drowsy driving in at least 72,000 crashes from 2009 through 2013, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those accidents included 41,000 injuries and 800 deaths, NHTSA said. However, the AAA Foundation analyzed crashes where vehicles were towed from the scene. The group estimated drowsiness causes an average 328,000 crashes per year, with 109,000 involving 6,400 fatalities. Risks of drowsy crashes are similar to drunken driving, with less scanning of the road and even nodding off at the wheel, according to the report. Slower reaction times, more frequent eye closure and failure to pay attention are among the risks. A driver awake for 18 hours will perform comparably to someone with a 0.05% blood-alcohol content, the report said. After being awake 21 hours, the driver mimics a 0.08% alcohol level, which is the definition for drunken driving in all states.
The report also identified drivers most at risk. Teens and young adults are involved in more than half of all drowsy driving crashes annually. People who work nights or long or irregular shifts are also more likely to get behind the wheel when they are too tired to drive, along with the estimated 40 million Americans who suffer from a sleep disorder.
There is no definitive test like a breathalyzer to determine if fatigue caused a crash. Clues for investigators include single-car crashes with just a driver in the car veering off the road with no evidence of braking, often late at night or early in the morning.
“Law enforcement lacks protocols and training to help officers recognize drowsy driving at roadside,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “And if a crash occurs, the drowsy driver might not report the cause due to concerns about monetary and other penalties.”
Driving while drowsy is common, as anyone who has worked a night shift or taken a long trip knows. Nearly one-third (31.5%) of all drivers acknowledged driving during the previous month while having trouble keeping their eyes open, according to a AAA Foundation survey of 2,545 drivers in 2015. More than two in five drivers (43.2%) acknowledged nodding off behind the wheel at least once in their lives, the survey found.
Only two states have laws penalizing drowsy drivers who injure or kill someone. A New Jersey law took effect in 2003 and applies to reckless drivers who go without sleep for 24 hours. An Arkansas law adopted in 2013 took a similar approach and also applied to motorists “in the state of being asleep.”
The Arkansas law has resulted in three convictions, but it is unclear how many cases have been brought under the New Jersey version, according to Monday’s report.
Several states have adopted educational measures, and others are debating criminal penalties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Massachusetts and Tennessee have programs for highway message boards to discourage drowsy driving. Florida’s transportation department web site maps out rest areas for drivers.
Other steps include installing rumble strips – grooved patterns on the roadway – to alert drivers when they’ve left traffic lanes, cable fences in road medians and better marketing for rest stops.
The National Institutes of Health offered more than a dozen suggestions in the report for getting more rest. A couple of tips were to avoid exercise and caffeine a few hours before bed, relax before sleeping and have a comfortable place to sleep.
If you or a loved one was injured as a result of an accident resulting from a drowsy driver causing an accident, please contact us at Brannon & Brannon for a free consultation at (850)659-2252 or through our website at brannoncanhelp.com.