The Drowsy Driving Problem

Joe WaggonerThe Drowsy Driving Problem

By Joe Waggoner, CEO, THEA

At the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA), we are in the business of driving. We build and operate roadways that make commuting easier and more enjoyable. But, we care more about the people using those roads than anything else.

Nearly three-quarters of Americans drive a car to and from work every day. With more cars on the road and increased traffic, many commuters adjust their travel time to avoid gridlock, some sleeping fewer hours of sleep per night as a result. In a recent national sleep poll, 27% of respondents admitted to driving drowsy to or from work at least a few days a month, 12% experienced drowsy driving a few days a week, and some even suffered drowsy driving almost every day. How many of us can relate to that feeling of not being fully awake while behind the wheel of our own vehicles?

Life gets busy, and we are all over-committed and over-stretched with our time. We get behind the wheel trying to tackle one more item on our “to-do” list, usually running late and often with insufficient sleep. What we don’t realize is just how dangerous that can be.
Sleepiness and driving is a dangerous combination. While most people are aware of the dangers of drinking and driving, they don’t realize that drowsy driving can be just as dangerous and fatal. Like alcohol, sleepiness decreases driver awareness, impairs judgment, slows reaction time, and increases the risk of crashing.

Drowsy driving doesn’t receive as much attention as it deserves—in part because it often goes unreported and can be more difficult to pinpoint as a cause or factor in accidents. But make no mistake: sleepy drivers are dangerous drivers.

Studies by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Safety Administration estimate that 100,000 – 300,000 crashes a year are associated with drowsy driving, resulting in 100,000 injuries and 5,000 deaths. That 8% to 10% of the annual fatalities.

As a society, we all agree that driving under the influence is unacceptable behavior. Many people who wouldn’t dream of driving after one drink, regularly get behind the wheel when feeling tired.

Driving while sleepy, tired, or drowsy is like driving while impaired or intoxicated. Each additional lost hour of sleep is like having another drink. People who sleep six to seven hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in a crash as to be involved in a crash as those sleeping 8 hours or more.

People sleeping less than 5 hours before getting behind the wheel increase their risk by four to five times. Driving after more than 20 hours of not sleeping is the equivalent of driving with a Blood Alcohol Concentration of .08% – the legal limit.

A major problem that contributes to this dangerous tolerance of drowsy driving is that, in general, we are not good at judging our own sleepiness. We tend to overestimate our ability to focus and underestimate our levels of fatigue. Moreover, the environment of driving – especially during long car trips or at night – and the repetitive rhythm and sounds can lull you into sleepiness unexpectedly.

Stage 1 of sleep is a transitional period between sleep and awake. You can be in Stage 1 sleep and feel awake. During this period, brain waves are slowing, and the body is relaxing in preparation for deep sleep. It is difficult to operate a vehicle during this stage safely.

Signs and symptoms of drowsy driving include, but are not limited to: increased levels of stress, impatience, aggressive driving, higher travelling speeds, frequent yawning or difficulty keeping your eyes open, missing road signs or turns, difficulty maintaining speed, wandering thoughts, drifting out of the lane, inability to remember driving the last few miles, “nodding off” or having trouble keeping your head up. But the effects of tiredness can be present—and can impair safe driving—even if you’re not yawning or struggling to keep your eyes open.

A single night of lost sleep can produce unsafe driving conditions. Regular patterns of not sleeping long enough or well enough — which we can all admit to — impact our ability to drive safely. Some drivers even experience periods of “microsleep” while driving, “short, involuntary periods of inattention.” Microsleep in a car traveling at high speeds is particularly dangerous – only 4 to 5 seconds can result in a vehicle traveling the length of a football field!

Young drivers ages 18-29, men, drivers with small children at home, shift workers, medical personnel, truck drivers, business travelers and people with undiagnosed sleep disorders are at an increased risk for a crash due to sleepiness while driving.

Drivers tend to feel the effects of drowsy driving more when traveling long distances at high speeds through rural settings or highways. However, drivers in who live in urban areas are more likely to fall asleep at the wheel compared to drivers in rural or suburban areas.

Most sleep-related crashes or near-crashes occur between 4:00am-6:00am, but other peak times for drowsy driving accidents are 12:00am-2:00am and 2:00pm-4:00pm.

The best strategy to avoid drowsy driving is to get plenty of sleep on a regular basis and talk with your doctor about any sleep issues you may be experiencing. Other things you can do to avoid drowsiness behind the wheel:

  • Leave plenty of time to reach your destination.
  • Build in time for breaks to stretch your legs, get fresh air, or take a quick nap.
  • Avoid driving late at night or very early in the morning.
  • On long trips, share driving duties with another driver.
  • Keep the car temperature cool.
  • Listen to music.
  • Don’t substitute caffeine for sleep.

Responsible driving, including not driving when you’re tired, is essential. At THEA, we will continue to build and operate state-of-the-art roadways to get you where you need to be. As drivers, get some rest tonight and help make our roads safer for everyone in the morning.