Driving drowsy might not seem like a big deal. There are no laws against it in North Carolina, and besides most of us have done it at one time or another.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 60% of Americans say they have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year, and more than one-third, have fallen asleep at the wheel. And these aren’t just exhausted working parents or single moms. Truck drivers. Business travelers. People with sleep disorders. Young people under 24.
Drowsy drivers are dangerous drivers. As dangerous as drunk drivers, often causing serious or fatal car accidents, according to AAA.
According to a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study drowsy driving is implicated in 100,000 car crashes per year, which leave 71,000 people injured and 1,500 dead says the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Drowsy Driving Causes 1 In 5 Fatal Car Accidents
A recent AAA Foundation study found that one in five fatal auto accidents involve drowsy drivers.
The same study noted that missing as little as one to two hours of sleep doubles
the risk of being involved in a car accident.
The National Sleep Foundation reports that being awake for 18 hours is the same as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% – the limit for which you can get a DWI.
That is why many states have legislation on the books that make or will make “driving while drowsy” against the law. Currently North Carolina is not one of them.
How Little Sleep is Too Little Sleep?
Here is how much your risk factors increases the less sleep you get during a 24-hour period:
- 6 to 7 hours sleep – 1.3 times greater risk of accident
- 5 to 6 hours sleep – almost twice the risk
- 4 to 5 hours of sleep – 4.3 times greater risk
- Less than 4 hours sleep – 11.5 times greater risk
New AAA research shows that a driver who has slept for less than five hours has a
crash risk comparable to a drunk driver.
Warning Signs You are Too Tired to Drive
There are many indications that you might be drowsy or in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. Here, according to the National Sleep Foundation, is how to tell if you are too tired to drive and need to stop in a safe place and rest.
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
- Daydreaming or having wandering or disconnected thoughts
- Trouble remembering the last few miles driven or missing exits or traffic signs
- Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
- Feeling restless and irritable
Drowsy Driving Risk Factors
- Sleep-deprivation or fatigue (6 hours of sleep or less triples your risk)
- Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia), poor quality sleep, or a sleep debt
- Driving long distances without proper rest breaks
- Driving through the night, mid-afternoon or when you would normally be asleep
- Taking sedating medications (antidepressants, cold tablets, antihistamines)
- Working more than 60 hours a week (increases your risk by 40%)
- Working more than one job and your main job involves shift work
- Drinking even small amounts of alcohol
- Driving alone or on a long, rural, dark or boring road
Warning Signs Another Driver is Too Tired to Drive
- Vehicle randomly drifting between lanes
- Car traveling at erratic speeds
- Vehicle hitting rumble strip on side of road
What to do if You’re Too Tired
If you feel tired while driving, take the following steps to try to avoid causing an asleep at the wheel accident with another vehicle:
- If possible, stop driving altogether and go to sleep in a safe place
- Otherwise, take a 15- to 20-minute nap at a lighted, designated rest stop
- Have a caffeinated drink in combination with a nap (caffine can take up to 30 minutes to kick in)
Adequate Sleep and Planning
Plan ahead before taking a long trip. Here are four simple steps to take to try to ensure you are well rested before you hit the road.
- Get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night if you are an adult, and 8 ½ to 9 ½ hours if you are a teenager.
- Bring someone along. They can share the driving, help keep you awake, and help you notice when you’re tired.
- Every couple of hours or 100 miles or so stop and rest. Get out of the car and stretch.
- It goes without saying, don’t drink alcohol in any amount, as it increases the effects of fatigue. And avoid taking medications that may impair your driving.
If You Are Involved in a Drowsy Driving Accident
If you are involved in a car crash caused by a driver who appeared to be asleep at the wheel before the crash, don’t wreck twice. Take the following steps to try to protect yourself:
- Call the police and ask them to respond to the crash site.
- Tell the investigating police officer you suspect the other driver was asleep.
- Take photographs of the accident scene. Make sure to take photos of skid marks (or lack of skid marks) caused by the other vehicle. Lack of skid marks are often telltale signs of drowsy driving.
- Talk to witnesses. If someone saw the crash, get their full name, address, email address, phone number and ask them to talk to the police at the scene as well.
- Seek immediate medical attention, even if you feel fine. Sometimes you won’t feel the effects of injuries until the next day – or even longer.
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* Insurance Research Council 1999