Driving while intoxicated gets the most attention, but about one in every six fatal auto accidents in the United States is due to driving while drowsy, according to a new study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Even worse: 41 percent of us are guilty of driving while drowsy.
Falling asleep at the wheel is scary and unsafe, but being drowsy also affects your ability to drive safely.
Being drowsy slows your reaction time down, it makes you less attentive and it alters decisionmaking. Just like alcohol or drugs, being drowsy slows down reaction time and impairs judgment.
How much sleep did you get last night?
Most of us will say “not enough!” And that’s probably accurate.
The National Institute of Health says, “adults should have between 7-8 hours of sleep a day and teens need at least 9-10 hours every night.”
The bottom line — many of us are not getting enough sleep and those tired, sleepy people are on the road. Sleep deprivation is a major cause of motor vehicle accidents and 16 percent of all fatal crashes involve tired, drowsy drivers. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data from 1999 to 2008 — 16.5 percent of fatal crashes involved drowsy drivers, as did 13 percent of auto accidents that required hospitalization.
The people more likely to drive drowsy are commercial drivers, shift workers, people with sleep disorders, people with young children, people using sedating medications, commuters and those getting less than seven to eight hours of sleep. That is a large portion of all drivers on every roadway.
The obvious signs of driving drowsy that many of us have experienced are frequent yawning and heavy eyelids, but drivers should also watch out for daydreaming, missing road signs or exits, drifting into other lanes, hitting rumble strips or not recalling your drive. Many times a tired driver will say they feel fine and are alert, but they are not. When your body is ready to sleep, it releases melatonin and other chemicals. When you force yourself to stay awake, your brain has to fight those chemicals, as well as, concentrate on the task at hand, leaving you in a fog.
About one in three deadly car crashes involve alcohol, and some studies have shown that being awake for 24 hours can leave you with the equivalent of a 0.1 bloodalcohol level. The state of New Jersey specifically forbids driving while sleep deprived, as defined by 24 straight hours without sleep.
In New Jersey, any driver involved in a fatality who meets that criteria can be charged with vehicular homicide.
Anyone driving should make sure they get at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night, abstain from alcohol and sedatives before getting behind the wheel, and get treatment for sleep disorders. Coffee and other caffeinated drinks are the eye–openers most of us rely on but a healthy lifestyle and plenty of sleep are the best bets to avoid being a drowsy, dangerous driver.
. Kendra Palmer is director of environmental services for the Franklin County Health Department in Frankfort. This column originally appeared in The State Journal.