Dangerous habits like drunk driving and distracted driving get a lot of attention. And they should, as they are among the most hazardous actions you can take behind the wheel. But an often overlooked but still incredibly dangerous driving habit is the practice of drowsy driving. And even otherwise safe drivers who wouldn't dream of speeding or driving drunk may do it, making drowsy driving a concern for every single driver on the road.
Consider these statistics that illustrate just how dangerous, deadly, and unfortunately, prevalent drowsy driving is today:
- Drowsy driving is involved in 2.2 to 2.6% of total fatal crashes annually (NHTSA)
- Driver fatigue is believed to cause 100,000 police reported crashes annually with 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries, and $12.5 billion in monetary losses (NSF)
- In 2009, 25% of the fatalities on United States roadways involved drowsy driving (NHTSA)
- An estimated 30,000 injury crashes with reports of drowsy drivers occurred in 2009 (NHTSA)
- Sleep related crashes are most common among young drivers. Men, adults with children, and shift workers are particularly at risk (NSF)
- Sleeping for six to seven hours a night makes you twice as likely to be involved in a sleep related crash. Sleeping less than five hours increases your risk by four to five times (NSF)
- Being awake for 18 hours results in an impairment that's equal to a blood alcohol concentration of .05. At 24 hours, the impairment reaches the .10 blood alcohol concentration level, higher than .08 which is considered legally drunk (NSF)
- Drowsy drivers are often more stressed, impatient, and tend to drive faster (NSF)
- 37% of drivers report that they've fallen asleep behind the wheel in their lifetime (AAA)
- 28.3% of licensed drivers report that they've had a hard time keeping their eyes open while driving within the last month (AAA)
- Only one in five drivers pulls over to nap when driving drowsy (NSF)
Why Drowsy Driving is Dangerous
One of the most dangerous things about drowsy driving is that you may not even realize you're doing it. Driving late at night, sleepiness can sneak up on you, or you may not even realize you're drowsy until you're nodding off behind the wheel.
But you don't have to fall asleep at the wheel to experience the danger of drowsy driving. Even fatigued driving is hazardous, as it impairs your ability to drive safely. Driving drowsy slows your reaction time, impacts your ability to make decisions, and makes you less attentive to hazards on the road.
Drivers at Risk for Drowsy Driving
Unlike drunk driving or distracted driving, drowsy driving happens to drivers that would otherwise be considered safe. Drunk drivers knowingly take a drink before getting behind the wheel, distracted drivers know they're texting while driving, but getting tired isn't something you do, but rather something that simply happens to you, and may negatively influence your driving before you even realize it. These drivers are among the most at risk for drowsy driving, whether on purpose or on accident:
- Truck drivers
- Shift workers
- Overtired commuters
- Road trip travelers
- Sleep deprived parents
- Sufferers of chronic sleep conditions
- Elderly drivers
This is a diverse selection of drivers that represents a significant portion of the driving population. Are you among them? While everyone should be on alert for drowsy driving, drivers in these groups should pay special attention to their risk of drowsy or fatigued driving.
How Drowsy Driving Happens
Drowsy driving is most often an unfortunate mistake. Drivers don't realize that they're too tired to safely drive until it's too late. Others may feel they have no choice but to continue driving even though they are dangerously drowsy.
Drivers out late at night may be eager to get home. Road trippers want to push through one more hour of a long trip and just get there already. New parents skating by on just a couple hours of sleep still have to drive to and from work. Stopping to rest is inconvenient and breaks will only lengthen your time on the road, making them inconvenient and unattractive. But breaks for rest on the road may be just what you need to stay alert and alive on the road.
What You Can Do to Prevent Drowsy Driving
While drowsy driving may sneak up on you, it is often possible to predict and prevent. And if you're already driving but feel drowsy, you also have options. Follow these tips to avoid drowsy driving and take action if you're feeling fatigued on the road:
- Rest up before driving: Admittedly, this is difficult, as most people don't plan to get a bad night's sleep, it just happens. But resting before you hit the road can save your life. Get at least six hours of sleep per night before driving, and before a long trip, seven to eight hours of sleep is ideal. If you don't get enough sleep before a long day of driving, consider reducing the number of hours you'll be on the road.
- Be ready to take breaks: Driving is all about getting from point a to point b, and often as fast as possible. But slow down and keep safety in mind, as it may not be possible for you to drive the entire distance in one day or without taking a break. Driving can suck the energy out of you, so it's important to stop every two to three hours to stretch your legs, get fresh air, take a bathroom break, and even grab a snack. You should even consider doing quick exercises to stay alert, like jumping jacks or sprints if space permits.
- Know the signs of fatigue: Tiredness can hit you suddenly like a ton of bricks or quietly sneak up on you with little yawns here ant there. Watch out for signs like wandering thoughts, stiffness, yawning, having trouble focusing, and slower reaction times. You may even find it difficult to remember driving the past few miles, or drift out of your lane.
- Rest if you need it: If you feel like you need to take a nap on the road, you probably should. It's not likely you can push through your drowsiness safely, so the best thing to do is find a safe place to stop and rest your eyes. That may mean finding a hotel to stay overnight, or even just parking in a safe spot to rest your eyes for a 20 minute cat nap.
- Drive early in the day: Packing up the car can take all morning, leaving you hitting the road close to lunchtime and tempted to keep pushing through with driving long after dinnertime. But hitting the road early in the morning is safest, as you'll be at your most alert, driving in the daylight, and arriving at your destination for the evening early in the day or evening rather than late at night when you may struggle with drowsiness.
- Avoid driving alone: Even if you're not drowsy -- yet -- it's smart to drive with a passenger on long trips and especially while driving at night. A passenger can keep you alert with conversation, and more importantly, take over driving duties if you're too tired to drive safely.
- Pay attention to details: The way you're sitting, the food you're eating, even the music you listen to can make you alert or put you right to sleep. Avoid reclining your seat or using cruise control when you're at risk of drowsy driving. It's also smart to avoid heavy foods that might make you sleepy. And of course, you should never drink and drive, as it is dangerous on its own and also a risk factor for sleepiness behind the wheel.
Ultimately, safe driving is in your hands. With a few simple precautions (and a willingness to admit when you're just too tired to drive), you can stay safe and avoid the danger of drowsy driving.