During the week after the switch from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time in the United States, when people turn back their clocks by one hour, the National Sleep Foundation, a non-profit organization, hosts “Drowsy Driving Prevention Week” to spread awareness about the dangers of motor vehicle drivers falling asleep behind the wheel. In 2023, the event runs between November 5th and 11th with the slogan “Sleep First. Drive Alert.” The NSF asks everyone to consider their sleep needs and only drive when refreshed and alert.
What Is Drowsy Driving?
Although medical exceptions exist, drowsy driving often occurs because a driver chooses to get behind the wheel of their motor vehicle when sleep-deprived or tired. They might feel this way because of overworking, driving during typical sleep hours demanded by the body’s circadian rhythm, or impaired by alcohol and OTC, prescription or illegal drug use. Medical exceptions include ADHD, breathing disorders, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, current or previous head trauma, inflammatory illnesses, neurodegenerative disorders, and sleep apnea.
Drowsy driving most often happens to drivers without passengers during early morning hours in rural areas with limited highway lighting. Drug and alcohol users, teens, young adults, adults who sleep less than six hours per 24-hour period, college students, commercial truck drivers, long- and night-shift workers or travelers, and people with serious treated or untreated medical conditions are at the highest risk of causing a crash that results in injuries or deaths. One car accident study showed not only an increase in collisions caused by fatigue but also an increase in injuries and deaths when fatigue was combined with other factors such as the age of the driver and driving at night.
Why Does It Matter?
Drowsy drivers experience more difficulty performing expected driving tasks. They often fail to turn a steering wheel when necessary, brake too slowly or too much, pay less attention, experience a higher level of distraction, and even fail to remember the rules of the road. They’re more likely to have difficulty handling multiple driving-related tasks at one time or recognizing and responding to sudden distractions and emergency events.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1 out of every 25 drivers age 18 and older falls asleep while driving at some point in their lives. People who snore and sleep six or fewer hours have a higher likelihood of falling asleep behind the wheel than those who sleep seven hours or more and don’t snore.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated, using its most recent census of hospital- and police-reported crashes that involved fatalities and injuries in 2017, that drowsy driving resulted in at least 50,000 people experiencing injuries and 800 people dying out of 91,000 reported incidents. The CDC, NHTSA, crash investigators, police, researchers and others involved in public health, sleep science, and traffic safety believe these numbers underestimate reality because of difficulties proving that a crash started with driver fatigue.
How Can You Prevent Drowsy Driving?
The best method to prevent driving while sleepy is to get seven or more hours of sleep a day unless otherwise indicated by a physician. Everyone should stop using electronic devices a few hours before bedtime and stick to the same sleep routine every night. It’s also critical that drivers not take anything that might impair driving skills, such as alcohol, drugs or medications. Lastly, anyone who experiences the symptoms of fatigue after sleeping enough should see a doctor about a potential sleep disorder.
Warning signs of fatigue while driving include driving onto the side rumble strip, drifting across or driving between lanes, blinking and yawning repeatedly, forgetting critical details about a drive, and missing an exit or turn. Although motor vehicle manufacturers continue to research and develop crash-avoidance technologies designed to prevent drowsy driving, such as loud notifications about drifting and reminders about the amount of time on the road without a break, individual drivers need to make a silent promise to themselves, their loved ones, other drivers and pedestrians that they won’t drive any type of vehicle while drowsy.