Drowsy Driving Should Worry Us All

Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, in association with the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), has launched a call for better education and awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving.

Performance in psychomotor vigilant tests (PVT) demonstrate that when someone sleeps only 4  hours in a 24-hour period, they have the same results in PVT scores as someone who has an alcohol level above the legal limit.  The PVT test measures reaction time and accuracy by using a simple task. It requires the individual to press a button as a light appears.  The test gives a numerical measure of accuracy and also scores lapses in attention.

The importance of this test finding is that most people who drive while drowsy do not feel that they are endangering their lives or the lives of others.

This is in contrast to individuals who drink and drive, who are very well aware of the consequences of their choices and behaviors, though they may be in denial.

The data regarding drowsy driving is very clear. The American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety Report surveyed data for over 14,000 crashes. These were instances in which a vehicle was towed from the scene of an accident, during 2009 to 2013.

A drowsy driver was involved in 21 percent of fatal crashes, as well as in 13 percent of the crashes where one person was admitted to the hospital.

To be clear, many accidents involving drowsy drivers go unreported.  A simple breath test at the site of a crash will immediately reveal if someone involved in the accident has had too much alcohol.  There is no test currently available to identify someone who is too sleepy to drive.

Even more disturbing is the regularity in which drowsy driving occurs. Another survey done by AAA in 2012 showed that 31 percent of licensed drivers reported that they had driven while they were “so sleepy that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open,” in the past 30 days, and 18 percent reported having done so more than once.

Data shows that most crashes caused by drowsy driving occur between the hours of midnight and 8 A.M. It is natural that darkness will make it more difficult to stay awake.  Additionally, most drowsy driving crashes involve someone driving alone.  A single driver has no one to talk to who can keep them alert.  In many cases, the driver’s reflexes show no sign of trying to avoid the accident. This fact is also evidenced by the lack of skid marks at the scene, implying that the driver never hit the brakes.

Who is most at risk for drowsy driving?Statistics show that most drivers that fit this profile are young males.  Young men are more likely to fit into these lifestyle and behavioral choices and subsist on significantly less sleep.  Other individuals at risk include:

Shift workers, especially those who work at night or work on rotating shifts. It is important to have some regularity to the schedules.

Drivers, who remain awake, for an extended period of time - This includes, students, doctors who take night calls, and even simple parents caring for difficult children who are forced to subsist on very little sleep.

Individuals with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea - This is not one of the conditions that doctors are required to report to the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Drivers who use medications that may cause drowsiness - In addition to tranquilizers, drugs that cause drowsiness may include certain high blood pressure medications, some cough and cold over-the-counter preparations, anti-seizure medications and a number of drugs that treat pain.  Sleeping pills taken the night before may also have lingering effects on one’s state of arousal the next morning.   A warning has been issued by the FDA regarding the lingering effects that Ambien, one of the most widely used sleep aids.

How do I know if I am too drowsy to drive?

  • If you yawn frequently.
  • If you are unable to keep your eyes open and you catch yourself nodding off.
  • If you are experiencing wandering thoughts, find yourself unable to focus.
  • If you start missing exits or don’t remember seeing certain posted signs.
  • If you find yourself drifting into other lanes and getting too close to the car in front of you.

How can you avoir limit drowsy driving?

  • Travel at times when you are normally refreshed and awake.
  • Try not to drive overnight.
  • During long drives, schedule a break every two hours or every 100 miles.
  • Short naps may be effective.
  • Drinking coffee may provide a temporary energy boost, but it takes 30 to 60 minutes for caffeine to take effect.

It is a mistake to assume that alerting activities like playing loud music, opening the window for fresh air, or turning on the air conditioner will help to keep a drowsy driver awake. The most effective way to avoid drowsy driving is to get regular sleep.  If you don’t get at least 7 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, your brain will accumulate a “sleep debt."

This deficit may be subtle and not noticeable until your sleep debt is quite significant.  Remember that just one good night’s sleep is not enough to banish sleep debt.  Assess your risk factors for drowsy driving and recognize that you are a danger on the road if you drive drowsy.  You can save lives if you are a responsible driver.

Source: AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety Report

Also check out:

Shift Work Disorder FAQ: Rotating Shifts

Evaluating Sleep Apnea