Drowsy Driving

Dr. Lakshmi Venkataraman
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Lakshmi Venkataraman, MD
Last Updated on Mar 15, 2018
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What is Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy driving means operating a motor vehicle when a person is unable to remain alert due to lack of sleep. Drowsy driving is also known as sleep deprived driving, fatigued driving or tired driving. Driving in this state leads to slow, decreased reaction time and judgment of stimuli. In some cases, the driver may also fall asleep behind the wheel. Sleep deprivation is a major cause of motor vehicle accidents, and it can affect the human brain as much as alcohol can.

Studies suggest that you are more likely to die from drowsy driving than from texting while driving, distracted driving or drunk driving combined.

Facts on Drowsy Driving

  • 21 percent of all fatal accidents are due to drowsy driving.
  • 60 percent of adult drivers or about 168 million people have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year.
  • About 37 percent or 103 million people have fallen asleep at the wheel, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s [NSF] 2005 poll.
  • 4 percent or approximately eleven million drivers admit they have had an accident or near accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive.
  • Sleep-related crashes are most common in young people between the ages of 18 and 29.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 accidents are the direct result of driver fatigue each year.
  • Vehicular crashes result in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and 12.5 billion dollars in monetary losses each year.
  • According to data from Australia, England, Finland, and other European nations, drowsy driving represents 10 to 30 percent of all accidents.
  • Drivers who slept 4 hours less had 10 times the crash rate of drivers who slept for regular times.
  • Men [56 percent] are more likely than women [45 percent] to drive while drowsy.
  • Men are almost twice as likely as women to fall asleep while driving.
  • Shift workers are more likely [36 percent] than those who work a regular daytime schedule [25 percent] to be involved in crashes.
  • According to NSF’s 2000 Sleep in America poll, 42 percent of drivers said that they become stressed, get impatient and 12 percent said they tend to drive faster when they are driving drowsy.
  • Only about 22 percent of elderly drivers said they pull over to nap when driving drowsy.
  • Most crashes occur between 4 to 6 a.m.; midnight to 2 a.m. and 2 to 4 p.m. Nearly 23 percent of adults admit that they know someone personally who has crashed due to falling asleep at the wheel.

What is Maggie's Law?

Maggie’s law states that drivers must not knowingly operate a vehicle while impaired by lack of sleep and should they cause a fatality, these drivers may be convicted of vehicular homicide. Maggie's Law defines fatigue as being without sleep for more than twenty-four consecutive hours and makes reckless driving while fatigued a criminal offense.

Maggie’s law was enacted in the state of New Jersey and was named after twenty-year-old Maggie McDonnell, a college student who died in 1997 when a vehicle driven by Michael Coleman swerved across three lanes and hit her car head on. Coleman told police that he had not slept for thirty hours and was fined 200 dollars for reckless driving.

Maggie’s law was passed in 2003 in New Jersey where the driver is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and 100,000 dollars fine.

Though at present the law is in force only in New Jersey, some other states are also in process of implementing the law.

What are the Causes of Drowsy Driving?

  • Lack of adequate sleep. Around 7 to 8 hours of sleep daily at night is essential for the human body. Fatigue-related accident is much higher, if you have been awake for more than 18 hours.
  • Driving long distances alone along vast boring stretches of road.
  • The presence of untreated or unrecognized sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea or narcolepsy [a disorder of the nervous system which causes excessive daytime sleepiness]. Habitual snoring and depression also cause daytime drowsiness.
  • Driving at times of the day when you would normally be sleeping. Your body and brain are regulated by your biological clock, also known as the circadian rhythm, which influences how alert or drowsy you are at certain times of the day.
  • Taking medications which have drowsiness as a side effect.
Causes of Drowsy Driving

Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Driving Performance

  • You are constantly rubbing your eyes and yawning.
  • There is difficulty in focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy feeling in eyelids.
  • You have difficulty in keeping your head up or your head is bobbing continuously. Sleepiness or nodding off makes it harder to react to events going on around you.
  • Drowsy drivers often miss exits or traffic signs and misjudge distances. There is inability to focus or clearly remember the road directions and signs.
  • Slow reaction to stimuli.
  • Decreased accuracy in responses.
  • Long lapses in attention.
  • Inability to stick to one lane, tailgating, or the driver may even hit the curb or shoulder rumble strip.
  • Increased moodiness and aggressive behaviors. Tired, restless and irritable drivers are more prone to road rage and speeding.

Effects of Sleep Deprivation Compared to the Effects of Alcohol

Sleep deprivation can have similar effects on your body as consuming alcohol. It is estimated that being awake for 18 hours at a stretch makes you drive like a person who has blood alcohol content [BAC] of 0.05 or 50mg per 100 ml.

A number of studies show that the loss of more than twenty-four consecutive hours of sleep can result in impairment of conscious intellectual activity such as thinking, reasoning, remembering, judgment and reaction time [relating to steering, acceleration and braking]. This is equal to 0.1 percent BAC, which is well above the legal limit.

Both drunk and sleepy drivers find it hard to pay attention to the road as well as suffer from impaired decision making. However, while a drunk driver may drive slower or try to react to a situation, a drowsy driver may nod off when driving fast, thus unable to swerve the vehicle or brake in time when need arises.

Tips to Stay Awake While Driving

  • Get a good night’s sleep before the start of a long trip. Make sure to get seven to eight hours of sleep at night. Taking a short nap before a road trip can also help make up for a shortfall in sleep.
  • Plan for one break every two to three hours on the road or every 100 miles.
  • Don’t travel for more than eight to ten hours a day.
  • Stop driving when you feel drowsy. Pull over in a safe spot, have a cup of coffee or take a short nap of about twenty minutes.
  • Drive with a buddy when doing long trips.
  • Have someone else do the driving in turns when you are feeling groggy.
  • Do not drink any alcohol before driving. It will compound the effects of sleepiness or tiredness.
  • Have someone in the front seat keep an eye on the driver. Ask driver to pull over in a safe place when he is sleepy or exhibiting signs of fatigue.
  • Avoid peak sleepiness periods from midnight to six in the morning. Choose to sleep overnight instead of driving through the night.
  • Avoid medications as a side effect.
Tips to Stay Awake While Driving

References:

  1. Drowsy Driving: Asleep at the Wheel- (https://www.cdc.gov/features/dsdrowsydriving/index.html)
  2. Drowsy Driving- (https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/drowsy-driving)

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