Have you ever driven on less than eight hours of sleep?


For most people — no matter age, gender or occupation — the answer is yes. It’s a safe estimation that every driver would plead guilty to at least one count of “driving while drowsy.” Of course, it’s not a crime (except for two states); however, recent research provoked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to add “drowsy” to its list of driving impairments, along with drunk, drugged and distracted.


The most obvious danger of drowsy driving is falling asleep at the wheel. But driver alertness, reaction time, judgement, attention and overall decision-making skills are also impaired when a person is short on sleep, increasing the chances of being in an accident.


A recent, notable drowsy driving case killed one person and left comedian Tracy Morgan in the hospital for months after a fatigued truck driver crashed into the back of their limo. Further back in 2011, a fatigued driver crashed a travel bus, killing 15 people and injuring 17. Unfortunately, these are not extreme examples.


Drowsy drivers are twice as likely to make performance errors as non-fatigued drivers. In fact, it may be more closely related to drunk driving than the average person realizes. An Australian study concluded being awake for 18 consecutive hours produced an impairment equivalent to a person with a .05% BAC level. After 21 and 24 hours, the impairment jumps to match a person with .08% BAC level, the national drinking and driving limit, and .10% BAC level.


Despite these facts, people continue to drive fatigued- and realistically, probably always will. But a recent AAA study showed this driver impairment is actually on the rise, especially among young drivers.


The Statistics

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety studied drowsy driving habits in 2015. They asked participants how often they drove “so tired [they] had a hard time keeping [their] eyes open.” The report revealed:

  • 32% of drivers reported driving drowsy at least once
  • 51% of men reported driving drowsy versus 36% of women
  • 40% of drivers ages 19-24 reported driving drowsy at least once
  • 4% of drivers drive drowsy regularly
  • 10% of drivers admitted to falling asleep at the wheel in the last year
  • 20% of drivers ages 19-24 admitted to falling asleep in the last year


These comatose drivers woke up transportation safety experts. Researchers from AAA, National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB), NHTSA and the Governors Highway Safety Administration (GHSA) released a report estimating the total damages from drowsy driving.


  • 328,000: Annual crashes from drowsy driving
  • 109,000: Annual number of injuries from drowsy driving crashes
  • 6,400: Annual fatalities from drowsy driving accidents per year
  • 50 percent of drowsy driving crashes involve drivers 25 years old and younger
  • 10 to 20 percent of large truck and bus accidents involve tired drivers


While 19-24 year olds are driving drowsy more often, commercial drivers and people with sleeping disorders are also at a higher risk. They also agreed these estimations are likely low. With little monitoring of drowsy driving nationally or statewide and its dependency on self-reporting, exact numbers are not known.


The Significance


The NTSB officially added drowsy driving to its list of dangerous driving habits this year. Unlike the others, however, every driver has the potential to get behind the wheel while sleepy. More than 80 million Americans say they get less than eight hours of sleep a night, according to the CDC, technically making them drowsy drivers. Sleeping for just six to seven hours at night can double a person’s risk of a drowsy driving accident, while sleeping for only five hours can quadruple it.


Those numbers could be a major player in the age group most at risk, 19- to 24-year-olds. With demanding college schedules, extracurricular activities and perhaps jobs, most college students don’t get the recommended eight hours of sleep at night. The GHSA also listed inexperience and biological changes as possible factors.


There’s other risk factors, too. Drivers on high speed, long or rural highways tend to fall asleep more. And that brings two road dangers together, most notable in Alabama.


Alabama’s fatality rate from car accidents is almost double the national average. But that’s not simply because Alabamians are terrible drivers, according to Birmingham car accident attorney Mike Mitchell. “It’s because a large segment of Alabama’s population lives in rural areas where hospitals are farther distances away than normal,” Mitchell said.


Emergency teams take longer to reach accidents, depleting chances of survival for those seriously injured. Truck drivers, of course, also find themselves on long, high-speed, rural roads more often than not.


The Solutions


First, drivers should recognize initial signs of drowsy driving: excessive yawning, drifting from lanes, hitting rumble strips, etc. Once a driver realizes they’re tired, they should drink caffeine or pull over for a quick 10-minute nap. When driving long distances, drivers should try taking a break every 100 miles or two hours and travel during times they’re normally awake. If too tired, drivers should find a place to rest for the night. However, more reliable solutions are on the way, as well.


No longer a surprise, many manufacturing companies are relying less on road fixes — like rumble strips — and more on built-in car technology. Automatic braking, for example, can prevent sleeping drivers from rear-ending a stopped car. When used, the brakes can trigger a sound alarm and digital dashboard message, waking up the driver.


Of course, the easiest way to end drowsy driving in your home, especially for the 19-24 age group, is through communication. Talk to new drivers about the associated risks and don’t allow them to go on long distance trips until they’re more experienced drivers.


November 6-13th is national Drowsy Driving Prevention Week. While many people may never risk driving drunk or distracted, everyone has the potential to be tired. Awake to drive and join in the national efforts to help raise awareness for drowsy driving.


Jenna MurrellJenna Murrell is a digital marketing specialist with Safer America, a consumer safety organization. Through data visualizations, interactive content and blogging, we’re working towards bringing safety into everyday conversations.


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