Drowsy driving is a major cause of traffic accidents, because sleepiness can compromise driving ability to a similar degree as drunk driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it is a conservative estimate to say that 100,000 crashes per year are the direct result of driving while fatigued.
These crashes resulted in an estimated 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in economic loss.
The actual harm from drowsy driving may be much worse than estimated, because there is no simple test to indicate whether a driver involved in a crash was fatigued.
Who is at risk for drowsy driving? We may automatically think of long-haul truckers and night shift workers, and these groups are indeed at risk. However, anyone who does not get enough sleep may be in danger, and less intuitively, one of the biggest at-risk groups is made up of teenagers.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, drivers aged 16-24 years are more likely to be involved in a drowsy-driving related crash than any other age group. According to the National Sleep Foundation, during adolescence, biological sleep patterns shift toward later times for sleeping and waking, but many high school classes across the country start before 8:00a.m. In order to function best, teens need eight to 10 hours of sleep, but only 15 percent of teens report getting 8.5 or more hours of sleep on school nights.
Teens are not the only group at risk for drowsy driving. Age is not always a factor; anyone who works at night or simply works long hours is at greater risk. One study found that night shift workers are at nearly six times the risk than other kinds of workers. Long-haul truckers are another at-risk group, and 15 percent or more of truck crashes involve fatigue. Other groups at risk for drowsy driving include parents with small children, people with undiagnosed sleep disorders and business travelers who may suffer from jet lag.
Anyone who does not get enough sleep – whether they are in one of these at-risk groups or not – may be in danger when they get behind the wheel. Sleep-deprived drivers should avoid driving at night or driving alone on long, dark or featureless roads. Experts say that if you find yourself feeling drowsy behind the wheel, the safest thing to do is pull over and take a nap.