The NHTSA found that sleepiness can increase reaction times, making it harder to physically or mentally react to stimuli than in a normal and alert state.  -  Photo: Canva

The NHTSA found that sleepiness can increase reaction times, making it harder to physically or mentally react to stimuli than in a normal and alert state.

Photo: Canva

Ahead of Drowsy Driving Prevention Week from Nov. 5-11, MarketWatch Guides recently published a new study on drowsy driving statistics, which shows while impaired driving is often associated with cellphone use or drugs and alcohol, drowsy driving is just as dangerous.

According to the study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 684 deaths resulting from crashes involving drowsy drivers in 2021. 

Take a look at the following statistics surrounding drowsy driving:

  • A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 1 in 25 drivers admitted to falling asleep while driving in the prior 30 days.
  • Most drowsy driving-related accidents involve motorists moving off the road at high rates of speed, often with no evidence of braking.
  • Drowsy driving-related accidents are more likely to occur in the early morning hours between midnight and 6 a.m. and in the late afternoon. These times correspond with natural dips in the circadian rhythms responsible for regulating sleep.
  • Accidents due to drowsy driving frequently occur on highways and rural roads.

What Makes Drowsy Driving Dangerous?

The NHTSA found that sleepiness can increase reaction times, making it harder to physically or mentally react to stimuli than in a normal and alert state.

Reaction times also increase at a higher rate over time for sleepy drivers than for drivers with the proper amount of rest. In other words, the longer you’re sleepy behind the wheel, the greater the impairment to your judgment.

Sleep deprivation can mirror the effects of drunkenness, a comparison that’s bolstered by various studies. In one study, some sleep-deprived participants performed equal to or worse than drunk participants with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05% when performing certain tasks.

Even the smallest increase in reaction time can put drowsy drivers at a higher risk of causing or being involved in a car crash, especially when traveling at high speeds.

Drowsy Driving Crashes and Fatalities

NHTSA figures from 2017 show that police reported over 91,000 crashes involving drowsy drivers. In those crashes, an estimated 50,000 people received injuries and nearly 800 people died.

While these deaths may have occurred due to other life-threatening circumstances, drowsy driving can kill regardless.

Survivors of drowsy driving-related car accidents continue to wrestle with the consequences of their actions, primarily via their annual car insurance premiums.

A single at-fault accident on your driving record can increase your premium by hundreds of dollars to upward of $1,000. Multiple accidents compound these rates due to your increased insurance risk as a driver.

Warning Signs of Drowsy Driving

According to the CDC, the following represent signs of drowsy driving:

  • Yawning or blinking frequently
  • Trouble remembering the past few miles driven
  • Missing your exit
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road

According to the study, passengers should also closely monitor motorists for signs of drowsy driving and look for rest areas if the driver must pull off.

Who Is Most at Risk for Drowsy Driving?

The NHTSA reports the following population groups to be at highest risk for drowsy driving:

  • Shift workers: Work shifts that interfere with the natural circadian rhythm can put employees at a higher risk of drowsy driving. Shifts that begin at or near dark and extend into the early morning could negatively impact driving ability.
  • Young people: Increased socialization, extracurricular activities, jobs, and schoolwork can all keep young drivers on the road longer and later, increasing their risk for drowsy driving.
  • People living with sleeping disorders: Left untreated, sleeping disorders such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy can increase the risk of car crashes due to drowsiness.

How to Prevent Drowsy Driving

Understanding how to avoid drowsy driving requires more than just hitting the snooze button. Here are a few tips from the CDC and NHTSA that you can use to remain alert the next time you get into the driver’s seat:

  • Aim for around seven to eight hours of sleep per night
  • Check your medications for side effects of drowsiness and use public transportation if they’re present
  • Avoid relying on tricks such as opening the window, turning up the radio, or guzzling coffee or energy drinks. Their effects on drowsiness are minimal and short-lived.
  • Seek treatment for sleep-related conditions like sleep apnea and narcolepsy
  • Refrain from drinking alcohol before you drive, even if you’re well under the legal limit
  • Take frequent breaks or pull over to rest if you feel yourself getting drowsy
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