Dozing While Driving: Too Many American Drivers Asleep at the Wheel

In a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly five percent of drivers admitted that they had nodded off at the wheel at least once during the past month.

The actual number may be even higher than that. In a 2005 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, more than a third of all adult drivers acknowledged falling asleep at the wheel in the past year. Another 13 percent reported having done so regularly – at least once a month.

One result of all this dozing while driving is car accidents caused by fatigued driving.

The Risks of Fatigued Driving

Nodding off at the wheel, however briefly, creates a major safety risk for the fatigued driver as well as anyone else who happens to be nearby. Even a brief “microsleep” of a few seconds or less can result in a car being driven unattended for several hundred feet. This is more than enough time to cause a major accident.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 100,000 automobile accidents occur every year as a direct result of fatigued driving. Such accidents lead to approximately 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in monetary losses every year.

Furthermore, because there is no foolproof way to determine whether or not a crash was caused by fatigue, the actual numbers may be much higher than the NHTSA estimates. Some estimates suggest that driver fatigue may be a factor in as many as one in four accidents.

Unlike the test for intoxication, there is no “breathalyzer” for fatigue, and police often receive little or no training in identifying driver fatigue as a factor in car accidents. Self-reporting is an equally unreliable indicator, because there are many reasons that a fatigued driver may not admit to having nodded off.

Fatigued Driving is Comparable to Drunk Driving

Even when a fatigued driver does manage to stay awake, there are a number of ways that driver fatigue contributes to the risk of accidents.

First, fatigue results in slower reaction times, impairing the driver’s ability to respond quickly to emergencies. Second, sleep deprivation leads to decreased vigilance, meaning that a fatigued driver will be less alert to changing conditions or road hazards like roadwork or merging vehicles. Finally, fatigue causes a driver’s brain to process information more slowly, making a fatigued driver less able to evaluate oncoming hazards.

Research has shown that the levels of impairment created by sleep deprivation are comparable to those that occur with intoxication. In that respect, fatigued driving accidents are like drunk driving accidents.

According to a study by the Centre for Sleep Research in Australia, a person who has been awake for 18 hours is impaired to the same extent as someone with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 percent. After 24 hours without sleep, the level of impairment is equivalent to a BAC of 0.10 percent. In the United States, a person with a BAC of 0.08 is considered legally drunk.

Preventing Fatigued Driving Accidents

The single biggest mistake that fatigued drivers make is trying to “power through” their exhaustion rather than stopping to rest. Many people mistakenly believe that they can safely stave off drowsiness with caffeine, open windows or loud music, but the effects of such measures are usually short lived.

Instead, drivers should plan their travel carefully to allow for breaks. The Federal Motor Carrier Association, a division of the Department of Transportation, recommends that drivers stop to rest at least once every three hours.

Getting enough sleep on a regular basis is the most important thing that drivers can do to reduce the risks of fatigued driving. The likelihood of fatigue-related accidents rises in direct correlation to the extent of a driver’s sleep deprivation.

A study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that people who sleep six to seven hours per night are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as drivers who sleep for eight hours or more. Drivers who sleep less than five hours per night are as much as five times more likely to crash than those who are well rested.

If you or someone close to you has been injured in a car accident caused by a fatigued driver, contact an experienced Massachusetts car accident attorney to discuss your situation and find out what your legal options may be.