Drowsy driving endangers you, your passengers, fellow drivers and pedestrians. Some drivers think that rolling down a window for fresh air or cranking up the volume on the stereo will perk them up. However, if your brain and body are sleep-deprived, sleep will overcome you no matter what tricks you try.
Sleep Awareness Week takes place March 8-14 and brings attention to a significant problem in America — lack of adequate sleep. Around 35% of the U.S. adult population is getting less than seven hours of sleep, and 30% suffer from insomnia. Among teenagers, 20% are averaging only five hours of sleep per night. That’s a lot of sleep-deprived drivers on the roads.
How Is Lack of Sleep Impacting American Drivers?
UpToDate, an online resource for clinicians, says drowsiness impairs various cognitive abilities that are important for driving, including judgment, attention, executive function, cognitive processing speed, memory, reaction time, and muscular coordination.
In America, drowsy driving is a major contributing factor to motor vehicle accidents on the roads. Here’s what the statistics show.
- DriversEd.com’s Behind-the-Wheel Confessions Report found that an alarming 71% of drivers admit to driving while drowsy.
- According to a survey by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), approximately 20% of U.S. drivers say they have fallen asleep behind the wheel in the previous year.
- NHTSA statistics show that 91,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers, in which 795 people were killed.
- The NFS’s Drowsy Driving Consensus Working Group reported that healthy individuals who have slept for two hours or less in 24 hours are too impaired to operate a car safely.
- UpToDate says research shows that driving after 20 hours without sleep is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08%.
How to Recognize When You’re in Danger of Falling Asleep Behind the Wheel
When you feel drowsy, don’t try to drive and push through it. If you find yourself experiencing any of the following signs, you may be at risk of falling asleep while driving:
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids.
- Daydreaming and disconnected thoughts.
- Not remembering the last few miles driven.
- Missing exits or not noticing traffic signs.
- Yawning repeatedly or rubbing sleepy eyes.
- Nodding off.
- Drifting from your lane, veering off the road, or driving too close to the vehicle in front of you.
- Feeling agitated and irritable.
Should drivers start to feel like they’re nodding off, the National Sleep Foundation urges drivers to pull over in a safe location, drink one to two cups of coffee and take a 20-minute nap. However, it’s important to note that drinking coffee is a temporary solution as caffeine may make you initially feel more alert, however, the effects may only last a short amount of time.
Another risk posed to drivers is microsleep. “Microsleep is a brief, temporary lapse in consciousness which can last from a fraction of a second up to 30 seconds," says UpToDate. "Most individuals are unaware when they’ve fallen into this state and believe they were awake. Just a few seconds of nodding off in a microsleep episode can lead to a catastrophic crash."
Other Causes of Drowsiness
Lack of sleep isn’t the only reason drivers fall asleep behind the wheel. Here are some additional causes of drowsiness.
Some medications, like antihistamines, antidepressants, pain pills, and cold and flu medication, cause drowsiness as a side effect. If you’re taking medication, always check the side effects. If it can cause drowsiness, avoid taking it before you drive.
UpToDate says insomnia isn’t the only sleep disorder that affects driving. “Other sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, increase the risk of car crashes by two- to threefold due to its effect on daytime drowsiness.
Alcohol is another sleep-inducing substance. Alcohol enters the bloodstream in as little as 20 minutes and immediately has a sedative effect. If you’re already tired from too little sleep, alcohol will further impair driving ability even if you're under the legal blood alcohol limit.
Rotating shift work disrupts the natural circadian rhythm that is responsible for our sleep cycle. Even if you’ve worked shifts for years and think your body has adjusted, you’re still at risk. According to Sleep Advisor, 95% of night-shift nurses report being in a car accident or narrowly missing an accident while driving home from work.
Don’t Skimp on Sleep!
Good sleep is vital for physical and mental health. How much should you be sleeping? The experts say seven to eight hours allows the body to rest and rejuvenate properly. If you're sleeping six hours or less, even if you believe that you're alert, you're likely not getting enough sleep. Make sleep a priority and drive safely.