Operating a motor vehicle when sleepy is known as drowsy driving, and it can affect anyone who gets behind the wheel. Drowsy driving significantly increases the risk of accidents, leading to a troubling number of injuries and deaths every year.
Given the widespread sleeping problems among adults in the United States, greater awareness of drowsy driving can play an important role in public health. Knowing about the causes, consequences, and prevention of drowsy driving enables drivers to avoid unnecessary risks on the road.
While there is no exact measure of drowsy driving, research indicates that it is disturbingly common. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 Sleep in America Poll found that 60% of adult drivers reported driving while drowsy in the past year. Survey data from the CDC indicated that one in every 25 adults had fallen asleep behind the wheel in the past month.
Drowsy driving is a major contributor to motor vehicle collisions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2017 drowsy driving led to at least 91,000 crashes, resulting in roughly 50,000 injuries and 800 deaths.
This data likely underestimates the impact of drowsy driving because it’s often impossible to definitively determine whether drowsy driving caused an accident, especially after fatal crashes.
In light of this, other studies calculate that drowsy driving causes up to 6,000 deadly crashes every year. Researchers estimate that around 21% of fatal car crashes involve a person driving while drowsy.
Drowsy driving significantly increases the risk of car accidents. Microsleeps are when a person dozes off for just a few seconds, and when they occur while driving, it’s easy for the car to run off the road or collide with another vehicle. The damage from these crashes increases when they occur at high speeds.
Drowsy driving is dangerous even if a person doesn’t actually fall asleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation leads to mental impairment that is similar to drunkenness with 24 hours of sleep deprivation roughly equating to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.10%.
This impairment makes a person less attentive to their surroundings and more easily distracted. It slows their reaction time, making it harder to avoid dangers in the roadway. Insufficient sleep is also tied to worsened decision-making, which can lead to risk-taking behind the wheel.
Multiple factors can play a role in drowsy driving:
Drowsy driving can affect anyone who takes the wheel, but certain people are at higher risk of car crashes related to drowsy driving, including:
If you notice any of the following signs of drowsy driving, you should look for the next available opportunity to stop and rest:
Take these signs seriously; they are a warning that you are drowsy and at risk if you continue driving. Exit or pull off the road and rest until you are not feeling sleepy.
Several steps can help avoid the dangers of drowsy driving. Some tips are beneficial right before or during a trip, and others work to build lifestyle habits for healthy sleep.
Over the long-term, good sleep is the best protection against drowsy driving. Focusing on sleep hygiene, which includes your habits and sleep setting, can enable better sleep every night.
Examples of sleep hygiene include maintaining a stable sleep schedule, limiting the use of electronic devices before bed, and making sure that your bedroom is quiet, dark, and conducive to uninterrupted rest.
In addition to sleep hygiene improvements, you should talk with a doctor if you have persistent or severe problems with falling or staying asleep or if you regularly have daytime sleepiness. Working with your doctor can identify the optimal approach to enhancing your sleep, which may involve testing to determine if you are affected by an underlying sleep disorder.