How Dangerous Is Drowsy Driving?

Drowsy driving is more common than most drivers think. Statistics show about 50% of U.S. drivers admit to consistently driving drowsy. Twenty percent (20%) said they fell asleep behind the wheel in the past year. An even higher percentage is likely, due to lack of reporting. Drowsy driving is a deadly mistake. Keep yourself and others safe by not underestimating the risks of driving while tired.

How Drowsiness Affects Driving

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates at least 90,000 car accidents in 2015 involved drowsy driving. These crashes caused 41,000 injuries and took over 800 lives. These statistics likely underrepresent the true number of drowsy driving crashes, as they are often difficult to identify. When a driver is drowsy, he or she cannot focus on the road or safely operate a vehicle.

Driver fatigue can make it difficult or impossible for a driver to safely operate a vehicle. Drowsiness can make thoughts fuzzy, cause a driver to miss roadway signs, and increase the odds of speeding or tailgating. If a driver begins taking long blinks, closing his/her eyes, or falling asleep while driving, the risks can increase. Falling asleep behind the wheel can lead to loss of control of the vehicle, head-on collisions, driving into obstacles or barricades, and fatal car accidents.

Driving drowsy can also distract a driver’s attention from the road. His or her mind may wander instead of focusing on the task at hand. The driver may also try to preoccupy him/herself with music, food, movies, a cellphone, or other distractions to stay awake. These can all achieve the opposite of the desired effect by causing a distracted driving crash.

Drowsy Driving vs. Drunk Driving

Most Americans know the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol. What they do not realize is driving drowsy can run the same level of risk as driving drunk. The National Safety Council states that going for more than 20 hours without sleep before driving is equal to driving with a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.08% – the legal maximum in Tennessee. Driving tired can impair judgment, reaction times, and the ability to control the vehicle in similar ways as drunk driving.

Some argue that drowsy driving is more dangerous than drunk driving due to the lack of awareness of the issue. While prudent drivers know not to drive while intoxicated, they may not recognize the risks of driving drowsy. Others might not realize just how tired they are until after an accident has already occurred. Drivers often fail to recognize the signs of drowsiness, such as excessive yawning or blinking. They do not know how many hours is safe to go without sleep before driving, yet they know how many drinks is too many.

Signs of Drowsy Driving

As a driver, it is your duty not to drive if you feel fatigued. Not getting enough sleep, suffering from a sleep problem such as insomnia or sleep apnea, and driving long hours or late at night can all increase your risk of driving drowsy. Commercial drivers, shift workers, and drivers with undiagnosed sleep conditions are most likely to drive fatigued.

What are the signs of drowsy driving?

  • Frequent yawning or blinking
  • Trouble keeping your eyes open
  • Drifting in and out of lanes
  • Hitting the rumble strip
  • Inability to remember the last few miles
  • Missing exits or turns
  • Difficulty maintaining a consistent speed

As soon as you notice signs of drowsy driving, pull over and get some sleep. Safe “replacements” for sleep are a fallacy. Caffeine or energy supplements do not eliminate the risk of drowsy driving. Find somewhere safe to park and rest until you feel restored enough to continue driving. Drive with a passenger who can help keep you awake on a longer trip. If you get into a collision with a drowsy driver, you may be eligible for compensation from his or her insurance company.