Why Aren’t We Waking Up to Drowsy Driving?

By Jill Duffy

while kills. Between 5,000 and 7,000 Americans lose their lives this way every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration () and the American Automobile Association. Defined as operating a motor vehicle while impaired by a lack of adequate , the effects of and drowsy driving are quite similar. In both cases, the driver’s ability to make quick decisions is compromised. Fatigue can result in one’s reaction time, situational awareness, judgment, and attention being degraded by 20 to 50%, according to the NHTSA. It also increases irritability, apathy, attention lapses, and microsleeps.

But none of this information is new. Driving while drowsy has been a known problem for years. More than a decade ago, the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll found that four percent of American drivers—or 11 million people—said they had an accident or a near miss as a result of driving while tired. Those numbers made the news back in 2005.

So why hasn’t the message stuck?

One of the problems is enforcing drowsy driving. The amount of sleep a driver has had will almost always come down to a person’s word. “There is no ‘breathalyzer’ for drowsiness, which makes drowsy driving difficult to assess,” says Dr. Raman Malhotra, a member of the board of directors of the AASM who is board-certified in sleep medicine and neurology. “Unless a driver admits to falling asleep behind the wheel, it can be challenging for a crash scene investigator to pinpoint drowsiness as a probable cause.”

Another part of the problem may be that driving while drowsy is just so common. The same NSF poll from 2005 showed that 60 percent of all adult drivers in the U.S. admitted to feeling drowsy while at the wheel, while 37 percent said they had fully fallen asleep while driving. The NHTSA estimates that around 100,000 police-reported crashes are the result of driver fatigue.

Taking pride in how little sleep some people get may be another reason we’re in denial about the dangers of drowsy driving. There is “a prevailing attitude among many adults in the U.S. that sleep deprivation is a badge of honor rather than a threat to health and safety,” Malhotra says. Think of any C-level executive or politician you’ve heard boast about sleeping only four or five hours a night.

“Despite convincing medical evidence and expert consensus on the importance of getting enough sleep, sleep deprivation continues to be an epidemic in our country,” Malhotra added. In other words, it’s culturally and socially acceptable. Last year, 45 percent of Americans said poor or insufficient sleep affected their lives at least once in the past week, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Unlike driving while intoxicated or driving while under the influence, driving drowsy isn’t a crime in most states. Only two states, Arkansas and New Jersey, have laws on the books that address drowsy driving. Any driver who hasn’t slept in 24 hours is considered negligent or reckless if they get behind the wheel.

But many believe it should be penalized. In a presentation given earlier this year on behalf of the NHTSA, administrator Dr. Mark R. Rosekind suggested there was a need to identify and develop effective legal and enforcement strategies regarding drowsy driving.

In its position statement, the AASM wrote model language for states to use in their driver’s manuals, educational materials, and licensing exams to raise awareness of drowsy driving. The organization also sees a need to identify and target the populations most at risk for drowsy driving, namely, teens and young adults. According to Malhotra, drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 years old are “80 percent more likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash than drivers who are at least 40 years of age.”

Teens are the same demographic targeted by public awareness campaigns about the dangers of texting while driving and other types of distracted driving. “Drowsy driving needs to be part of the conversation,” Malhotra said. The solution in part may be to add “drowsy” to the same message about driving drunk, drugged, or distracted: Just don’t do it.

Tags:  driving drowsy DUI impaired driving NHTSA Sleep

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