Driving while sleepy is an all-too-common and very dangerous problem. Research suggests that almost 20% of accidents on major roads are sleep-related. Sleep-related accidents are also more likely than others to result in a fatality or serious injury.
Overestimating your ability
If you think you can handle driving when you’re drowsy, think again. Lack of sleep can have the same hazardous effects as drugs and alcohol. Drowsiness slows your reaction time, decreases awareness, and impairs judgment. And just like drugs or alcohol, drowsiness can be fatal when driving, warns the U.S. National Safety Council.
A serious public-safety issue
Drowsy driving is the cause of at least 100,000 auto crashes each year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite the obvious dangers of drowsy driving, many of us still do it. Surveys conducted by the National Sleep Foundation show the prevalence of drowsy driving among U.S. drivers:
- More than one-third (37%) of drivers report having nodded off or fallen asleep while driving in the past year.
- Among those who report nodding off while driving, 13% say they’ve done so at least one or more times a month.
- Four percent of drivers admit they have had an accident or near-accident due to drowsiness in the past year.
Ways we ignore the problem
The statistics are enough to frighten anyone who spends time on our nation’s roads. Why are drivers so reckless? Some people cannot tell that they are close to falling asleep. The urge to sleep can come on suddenly. Others think they can fight off the desire to close their eyes. Both groups are putting themselves and others in danger.
What drowsy driving feels like
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking or heavy eyelids
- Wandering or disconnected thoughts
- Trouble remembering driving the last few miles; missing exits or traffic signs
- Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting from your lane, tailgating or hitting a shoulder or rumble strip
- Abnormal speed
- Feeling restless, irritable or impatient
- Back tension, burning eyes, shallow breathing or inattentiveness
Who is most at risk?
Since we all need adequate sleep, any driver can experience a decrease in alertness when they have not had enough sleep. That said, research points to young males, night-shift workers, commercial drivers (especially long-haul drivers), as well as other people who drive a high number of miles everyday as being at increased risk for a fall-asleep crash. People with untreated sleep disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnea are also at elevated risk for accidents stemming from drowsy driving. Sedating medications like antidepressants, cold tablets, and antihistamines can also put you at risk, so be sure to check drug labels or talk to your doctor before getting behind the wheel when you’re taking medication.
Laws differ from state to state, but there is increasing focus on treating drowsy driving as a criminal offense in cases where someone is injured or killed. Don’t let the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness get you in trouble. Stay rested and stay safe.