Drowsy driving is responsible for a huge number of injuries and deaths each year. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (or NHTSA for short), over 100,000 collisions per year are caused by drowsiness and fatigue, directly or indirectly. This number translates to more than 1,500 deaths and over 40,000 injuries. And this is just in the United States! And yet, drowsy driving is often overlooked as a serious issue, as there is a worrying lack of awareness when it comes to all the risks involved, and the regulations that were put in place to control this problem.
Certain demographics are more susceptible to falling asleep at the wheel, and this puts them at increased risk of injuries, or worse. These include shift workers (these people often cannot maintain a stable sleeping schedule due to the ever-changing nature of their work schedule), young or inexperienced drivers, business travelers and more. There are a plethora of reasons why someone could be suffering from fatigue, but the risks are the same. Roads are not the safest place to be, so we’ve compiled a guide that will list off and explain drowsy driving risks and regulations that, if you’re aware of them, help you avoid being caught in a traffic accident.
Drowsy Driving Risks
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have estimated that 1 out of 25 drivers above the age of 18 reports falling asleep at the wheel in the last month. Upscale that to how big the population is, and you’ll get a rough idea of how many people have this issue.
Fatigue as a condition has a large variety of possible causes. These range from lack of sleep or an unhealthy diet plan to not enough physical activity (or too much physical activity), jet lag, or more serious health problems like anemia, heart disease or sleep apnea. To make matters worse, the medication used to treat a lot of these conditions can cause fatigue by itself, further complicating things. When you look at all these causes, it may seem like it’s very hard to avoid fatigue reliably – because it is.
When a person is suffering from drowsiness or fatigue, their performance in many aspects of life (including driving) downgrades to a worrying degree. While each person deals with fatigue slightly differently, some risks are consistently present across the board. Here’s a list of downsides that are especially relevant for drivers of any age:
- Reduced alertness and longer reaction times: Being a good driver largely depends on your ability to maintain a high level of awareness when it comes to nearby traffic sign instructions, the conditions on the road itself, as well as the position, speed and direction of nearby vehicles. You should also be able to react to new information correctly, such as a vehicle making a sudden turn or any similar situation. Being tired makes you worse and noticing and responding to potential threats and obstacles, which can very easily lead to injury, vehicle damage or death.
- Weaker hand-eye coordination: Hand-eye coordination (or eye-hand coordination) is your ability to utilize visual input to guide the movement of your arms and hands. Without this ability, we wouldn’t even be able to do simple tasks like picking up and accurately placing objects, let alone drive properly. So when fatigue makes you worse at driving on a physical level by weakening your hand-eye coordination, you’re suddenly in danger – even if you don’t notice it.
- Inefficient information processing and memory problems: All the studying you did for your driver’s test means nothing if you can’t remember the necessary information when it counts. Fatigue can make you forgetful and careless because it inhibits your mind’s ability to interpret information gathered by your senses correctly. Couple this with longer reaction times and you have an accident just waiting to happen.
- Irritability and anger: Our tolerance levels tend to drop when we’re exhausted. Think about all the times you’ve seen bad drivers on the road and experienced a mild case of what is sometimes called “road rage.” Fatigue makes it much easier to become irritated and angry – the perfect mental state for taking unnecessary risks. It should be fairly obvious how this manifests in the form of higher collision chance, especially if the person is prone to aggressive reactions while tired. Irritation and anger also serve as a potent distraction, since we’re swelling with emotion and unable to think clearly or notice our surroundings.
As you can see, the downsides associated with drowsy driving can strengthen each other. All of it comes from fatigue, however, and thus we must put maximum effort into making sure we’re well-rested when we have to drive somewhere, even if it’s a routine trip like going to work.
Drowsy Driving-Related Laws and Regulations
Although it’s a slow process, a legislative effort has been made over the last decade to impose punishments and fines for drowsy drivers, often equating the offense to reckless driving or even manslaughter and negligent homicide. Staying awake for 18 hours straight is considered the same as having a blood alcohol content of 0.05 (the legal limit is 0.04 for commercial vehicles and 0.08 otherwise). Staying awake for 24 hours straight is considered the same as having a BAC of 0.10, strictly above legal limits. Drowsy driving is getting more and more acknowledgment over time, so let us examine exactly how severe the punishments for drowsy driving are in various states, and how the government has helped spread awareness about this issue.
- In Alabama since 2016, the date of November 19th is considered Drowsy Driver Awareness Day. They’re also considering the implementation of drowsy driving warnings in educational material such as driver’s manuals, courses, and license exams.
- In Arkansas, if the driver has been awake for 24 hours or if they were asleep at the wheel after 24 hours of being awake, they get punished with a class A misdemeanor for negligent homicide if they participate in a fatal accident.
- California proclaimed April 6, 2005, as Drowsy Driver Awareness Day.
- In Florida, the first week of September is “Drowsy Driving Prevention Week.” During this time, the police and the general public are given education about the risks of drowsy driving. A point is made about how drowsy driving carries the exact same risks as drunk driving and is equally dangerous.
- New Jersey treats drivers who have been awake for 24 hours or more as though they’re driving recklessly and fines them accordingly. In fact, the severity of this offense is considered the same as that of drunk driving.
- Texas takes the same approach as Florida. The week between November 6 and November 12 was declared as “Drowsy Driving Prevention Week.” During this week, people are educated about the risks of drowsy driving and various prevention methods.
- Utah has been commissioning studies that determine which sections of their highways are the most susceptible to drowsy driving-related accidents. As a result of these studies, they have placed many road signs that warn drivers about the risks associated with fatigue, as well as directions towards nearby rest stops.
Many bills have been proposed within the last decade, and there is no doubt that more are on the way. People are slowly becoming more aware of all the risks that come with fatigued driving, although how much positive change this will bring in is unclear.
Drowsy Driving Versus Drunk Driving
We’ve briefly covered this, but drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving. Depending on how long you stay awake before driving, it can legally count as having your performance equal to that of a drunk person. Let us look at what happens to a person while driving drunk. We won’t dwell on the individual points for too long, as this section is mainly here to show how similar the effects of fatigue and alcohol can be.
A drunk driver may suffer from any or all of the following issues:
- At a BAC of around 0.02, the driver’s ability to multitask and register visual stimuli is weakened. Multitasking is a crucial ability we use to drive – an average driver has to keep track of more than a few variables and simultaneously steer the vehicle and pay close attention to the road.
- Once the BAC reaches 0.05, your information processing, reaction time and eye movement are all slowed considerably. Your hand-eye coordination is also weakened, adding to the list of problems. All of these are crucial factors for (un)safe driving, and this is why commercial vehicle drivers are legally required to be under 0.04%.
- A BAC of 0.08 is the legal limit for any type of driver. At this threshold, reaction time becomes even worse, making it very difficult to respond to danger properly. Your ability to reason and perceive things is considerably weaker as well, inviting even more potential trouble.
Notice how similar the symptoms are. Depending on who you consult, they may even be identical. That’s why awareness is being spread about drowsy driving in an increasing number of states. A person driving while intoxicated has the same problems as a person who hasn’t had enough rest, and their punishments in the face of the law are becoming the same as well.
Drowsy Driving Prevention
So how do we deal with this issue? It’s virtually impossible to avoid all the pitfalls that can lead to fatigue since the causes are everywhere. The way most of us lead our lives, from work schedule to social activities, to childcare, doesn’t lend itself to having a healthy sleeping schedule. A simple night out or late work shift can single-handedly cause an accident, even if the chance is small. Here are some ways we can stay safer on the road by reducing the amount of fatigue we have to deal with regularly:
- Plan your schedule so you can get enough rest. An average adult needs at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep to be at peak performance. If you’re constantly running into problems falling or staying asleep, consult your doctor and get educated about the causes and solutions. An undiagnosed sleep disorder is the last thing you want to worry about on the road.
- Get a cup of coffee or some chocolate. Coffee is a part of many people’s morning routine, and while it can’t replace a healthy seven-hour sleep, it can give you that extra boost that keeps you alert. Chocolate and carbonated drinks (especially energy drinks) can be a good replacement for coffee, as can various brands of tea. All of these things have a pleasant taste, which can help keep a habit.
- Make use of rest stops along the road. If you’re driving along the highway, and you start feeling fatigue taking over, don’t hesitate to take a nap at a rest stop. While you may not be allowed a long sleep by their rules, a quick power nap is all you need to get back in shape for driving.
- Keep a window open. Ignoring a lack of fresh air is a surefire way to become sleepier, even if you had enough rest previously. Carbon dioxide is the culprit here, so make sure there’s at least one window that allows the air to circulate. Even if it’s cold outside, it’s important to keep yourself awake enough to drive safely.
- Don’t travel alone, whenever possible. Having other people in your car is a reliable way of keeping yourself awake. If they have a driver’s license, they can even take over for you if the situation is dire. Try to hold a conversation, but don’t lose focus on the road while doing so.
- Listen to some music. There is a reason music fits sports so well – an energetic track can pump you up, increasing alertness and keeping you awake. The same applies to driving and makes music a handy tool to prevent fatigue from kicking in. Don’t expect it to keep you in peak performance if you haven’t had proper rest for a long time, though.
- Make sure you have a good meal before driving. Not eating properly is a very common cause of fatigue, and it’s a very easy fix. Don’t skip breakfast and make sure your ingredients are healthy and fresh.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic