Drowsy driving isn’t just a risk for anyone who gets behind the wheel, it’s a risk for anyone who gets in a car, or who bikes, walks, or runs along the road. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, at least 5% of car accidents where someone is killed involve a drowsy driver. Nationally, that means that tired drivers cause 6,400 fatal accidents every year.
How Impaired are Drowsy Drivers?
Driving drowsy has a massive impact on how someone drives. The AAA Foundation also estimates that people who drive after only 4-5 hours of sleep (as opposed to the recommended 7) are at about the same risk level for crashing as people with blood alcohol levels at or even slightly above the legal limit. An Australian study confirmed this, showing that staying awake for 18 hours was like having a blood alcohol concentration of about .05. This rose to .10 after 24 hours awake. .08 is the legal limit in most places.
Drivers are at a greater risk for crashing even when they only lose an hour or two of sleep. Those who sleep 5-6 hours a night are twice as likely to be in an accident when compared to those who sleep at least 7 hours. It may not feel like much, but every hour of sleep matters when it comes to staying safe on the road.
How Common is Drowsy Driving?
Since the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll from 2005 (the most recent one to focus on drowsy driving) reports that 60% of adult drivers admit to driving while tired in the past year, and 37% say they’ve actually fallen asleep at the wheel, this is a huge problem. People report feeling more stressed (42%) and impatient (32%) when they drive while tired, and some admit that they drive faster (12%), too.
We don’t hear as much about drowsy driving as we do about drunk driving because it’s harder to measure when someone is driving tired. A chronically tired person may not realize they are tired, and there’s no way to measure it even if they do. Since drowsiness doesn’t leave behind any physical markers for law enforcement to see, sense, or investigate, it is often overlooked. However, we can do a lot to eliminate drowsy driving.
Who Drives Drowsy?
While anyone can end up driving tired, there are some people who are more likely to end up with exhaustion levels that akin to alcohol impairment. According to the National Sleep Foundation:
- 71% of adults ages 18-29 report driving drowsy, making them the age group most likely to do so.
- 56% of men report driving drowsy, opposed to 45% of women.
- Men are also more likely than women to fall asleep while driving (22% vs 12%)
- People who work unusual hours (like shift workers) are drowsier drivers than those on a conventional schedule (36% vs 25%)
- Parents whose children live at home are more likely to be tired drivers than those who don’t have children or whose children have moved out (59% vs 45%)
- Commercial drivers, like long-haul truckers or 24/7 delivery workers, are more likely to drive drowsy
- People with undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and narcolepsy, are more likely to be tired drivers and to fall asleep at the wheel.
- Those who take medications, whether prescription or not, that can cause drowsiness are at a greater risk for accidents.
- Most tired driving crashes occur between 4 and 6 AM, though 12-2 AM and 2-4 PM are also common times.
- Up to 82% of all drowsy driving crashes happen when someone is driving alone.
How Can We Prevent Drowsy Driving?
A huge part of preventing accidents caused by drowsy driving is awareness. Many people don’t know how dangerous it is to drive when they are tired. Understanding the issue and accepting that tired driving impairs a driver is a huge step toward reducing the number of accidents related to driver exhaustion. If you fall into one of the categories above, take extra caution when you drive. Evaluate yourself or ask someone else if they think you’re too tired to drive.
There’s more we can do to prevent drowsy driving, beyond raising awareness.
- Get enough sleep. If you’re not getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night, you are driving drowsy. If you’re not a good sleeper or if it’s hard for you to go to bed early enough to get this much rest, making the change can feel daunting. However, it’s worth the effort to develop healthy patterns and find out what works for you.
- Pay attention. Drowsy drivers tend to forget things, like where to turn or when to get off the freeway. They also tend to miss things like stop signs, and more than half of drowsy driving crashes involve drivers drifting out of their lane or off the road. If you find yourself doing these things, are in a car with someone doing them, or see another driver exhibiting these behaviors, do whatever it takes to get the driver off the road. You can even call the police and let them know there’s a dangerous driver.
- Take a short nap. If you’re concerned about driving while tired, fit in a 15-20 minute nap before you drive (or pull over somewhere and take one in your car!). It doesn’t seem like much, but even a little bit of sleep can refresh you enough to make you a safer driver.
- Drink some caffeine. Caffeine is not a long-term solution to drowsy driving, but if you MUST drive and you know you’re tired, drink up to 2 cups of coffee. It can help improve your alertness for a couple of hours. However, it cannot replace the sleep that you need. For the best boost, drink your caffeine, then take a short nap. This gives you the benefits of both.
Drowsy driving is a hazard that we can eliminate. Once you realize it’s a problem, it’s pretty easy to take some steps to mitigate the effects that being tired can have on your driving. No one wants to cause an accident, especially one that ends with totaled vehicles, terrible injury, or death. Lower your chances of an accident by changing your sleep habits, noticing your driving behaviors, and doing what you need to do raise your alertness before you drive.