Driving drowsy as dangerous as driving drunk, studies show
November 9th, 2011
07:31 AM ET

Driving drowsy as dangerous as driving drunk, studies show

Lisa Shives, M.D., is the founder of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Illinois. She blogs regularly on The Chart. Read more from her at Dr. Lisa Shives’ Sleep Better Blog.

We all know the symptoms. Your eyelids droop and your vision becomes blurry. Your head feels so heavy that you can’t hold it up and so your chin keeps falling toward your chest. You can’t stop yawning. Diagnosis is clear to most of us: You’re sleepy.

I know what it feels like and looks like and so do you. So why do many surveys show that most of us have driven while drowsy and many of us do so on a regular basis?

Well, for one thing, we are not a culture that takes sleep seriously. We think that when our lives become so busy that we don’t see how we can fit everything into a 24-hour day, that we can find extra hours by carving it out of our sleep time.

Many surveys over the past four to five decades show a steady decline in the number of hours that people are sleeping. You add to that an increase in shift work and an increase in sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, which is increasing in parallel with the rising weight of the average American, and you have one sleep-deprived nation, one whose citizens drive on a daily basis.

This week is Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, and numerous organizations such as the National Sleep Foundation and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety are trying to get this topic before the American people.

A recent poll conducted by the AAA Foundation echoed the results of numerous National Sleep Foundation Polls, namely that a large percentage of Americans report driving under the influence of sleep.

In this latest poll, one-third of those surveyed admitted to driving drowsy in the past 30 days. A 2005 NSF poll of approximately 1,000 people found that 60% of drivers, or about 168 million people, admitted that they had driven while sleepy in the preceding year; and 37% confessed that they had actually fallen asleep behind the wheel.

Educating people to the dangers of drowsy driving is a key step in prevention. For example, did you know that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 crashes that are reported to the police each year are the direct result of fatigue and sleepiness? And that is a conservative estimate because it is hard to pin down how many crashes are due to drowsiness.

Drowsy driving is hard to quantify for a number of reasons. One, because there is no standard test to determine driver fatigue as there is with drunken driving. Two, fatigue-related crashes usually occur when someone is driving alone. Three, a grisly feature of crashes associated with sleepiness is that they are often fatal.

Investigators have figured out that a crash due to fatigue often shows no skid marks or signs that the driver tried to correct the course of the vehicle as they see with crashes due to intoxication.

Speaking of intoxication, numerous studies have shown that sleepiness can impair driving skill s as much as being drunk. In fact, being awake for 20 hours straight makes the average driver perform as poorly as someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.08%, now the legal limit in all states.

We suspect that sleepiness combined with drunkenness is a particularly deadly combination. No surprise, those most likely to drive while drowsy are young people, age 18-29, especially men, and this is the age group involved in the greatest number of traffic accidents. Other groups of people who report driving drowsy are shift workers, commercial drivers and adults with children in the household.

Tips to avoid driving drowsy:

1. Recognize that sleep is an essential component of health and try to get the seven to eight hours each night that most people need.

2. Get treatment for sleep disorders such as insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy.

3. Avoid driving between the hours of 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. when the urge to sleep is the strongest. Also be aware of the afternoon slump. Crashes due to fatigue also often occur between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. during the circadian dip in alertness.

4. Although caffeine is no substitute for a good night’s sleep, it can help alertness. So if you don’t suffer from insomnia or have a medical condition that is aggravated by caffeine, then by all means reach for a strong cup of joe when you must drive and you know that you are not your most alert.

5. Pull over. If you are having the symptoms of sleepiness, do not assume you can control the urge. Many have done so with deadly consequences for themselves and fellow travelers. Find a safe place and try to take a 10-20 minute nap. Studies have shown that shorter naps result in greater alertness and better performance.

6. Avoid driving alone for great distances especially in the middle of the night.

7. Take a break every two hours if you are driving long distances as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation

8. Parents, please, talk to your children, and especially your teens who have started driving, about the dangers of driving while drowsy.

Ninety-six percent of those polled by the AAA Foundation feel that it is “unacceptable” for people to drive while they have trouble keeping their eyes open. Yet, only one state makes it illegal to drive while knowingly fatigued. “Maggie’s Law “ was enacted in New Jersey after the 1997 death of Maggie McDonnell, a college student killed when a driver, who admitted to being awake for 30 straight hours, crashed into her car.

Drowsy driving is deadly and it is about time we take it seriously.

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Filed under: Sleep

soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. r

    Wow, that first paragraph describes a lot of students during class.

    November 9, 2011 at 09:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Portland tony

    Studies like this and the profound advice given make me wonder. Who actually pays for this idiotic stuff! And the idea that CNN is stupid enough to publish it. Its like saying "don't stand in front of a speeding bullet cause it might hurt you".

    November 9, 2011 at 10:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Dave

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    • Sidik

      It just shows that China and the US could destroy each other. That's not a bad thing. Mutually Assured Destruction saved the irtene world during the Cold War with the USSR. By just having the knowledge that we can kill each other, civilized countries, is nothing more than a safety trigger. China can attack the US but won't. The US could attack China, but won't. We're still friends even though we disagree on many things.IMHO, there is nothing to worry about. China is just catching up with what we have had for 20 years, now.

      March 5, 2012 at 21:42 | Report abuse |
  4. Sigh

    I remember hearing about this 20 years ago. This isn't a result of a new study, it's common sense.

    November 9, 2011 at 20:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. sharts

    It took a study to come to this conclusion. That must have been a hard study.

    November 10, 2011 at 03:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. sam

    There is no way this is true,DRUNK DRIVING or even under the Influence of ALCOHOL is the biggest killer in the WORLD,And they do nothing about it...Oh wait,they do advertise checkpoints in most states,what they need to do is get them at the bar,club,restaurant,sports event,theme park before they leave.

    November 10, 2011 at 05:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Austin

      Alcohol is not the 'biggest killer in the world'. Also, the point of this acticle is that scientific studies have taken place. I'll take science over your opinion any day.

      November 12, 2011 at 14:32 | Report abuse |
  7. akmac64

    As someone who admittedly drove while intoxicated, many years ago, and also having drowsiness issues, I can unfortunately vouch for the danger of driving when sleepy. I never had an accident when drinking (by the grace of something), but I had several accidents and near accidents when there was no alcohol involved, only tiredness. Only once was another person involved, without injury, thankfully again. The fatigue was from unknown (at the time) medical issues rather than lack of sleep, but the result is the same. I am much more careful now and have not had an accident in many years.

    November 10, 2011 at 18:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. larry5

    Drowsy driving has always been a problem. It just does not get the publicity that drunk get. Also people are afraid to pull over to sleep. It's dangerous. If you don't get robbed or attacked you get rousted by the police. The world along the road can be really unfriendly and dangerous.

    November 11, 2011 at 03:55 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nancy

      If i get too drowsy, i pull into a convenience store, kick the seat back and snooze for 15 minutes with all the doors locked. Then i'm good to go for the rest of the day. POWERNAP!

      December 14, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse |
  9. keef

    so....why don't we start banning it? just like dui.

    November 11, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Austin

      In the immortal words of my 4 year old nephew: prove it.

      November 12, 2011 at 14:32 | Report abuse |
  10. vernelle

    Storeworkers are more than happy tn let u take a nap in the parking lot if u ask it works 4 me

    November 13, 2011 at 22:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. sam

    There is nothing worse than driving DRUNK...NOTHING

    December 8, 2011 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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  13. Doug Ballnik

    We are always shocked how much "urban legend" and folk remedies creep in to reports on drowsy driving like this. EVERY study shows that caffeine has – at best – transient effects on alertness. Beta brain waves are the key here and are naturally suppressed with melatonin uptake; i.e. as soon as photoperiodicity kicks in. Taking a break is also a transient effect as well. We are, of course, partial to our device, but stories like this convince people that they can drive safely while fatigued. NOT SO!

    January 25, 2012 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ian

      Ready to go down in a ball of flames wing nuts???If CNN is so "liberal" why did they plant a Grover Norquist tquseion? Out of 5000 videos, they picked Grover Norquist??????can anyone care to explain, and care to explain why the haco-o-sphere's is ignoring this????Grover Norquist, and infamous Republican activist, asked a video tquseion about TAXES, nobody called it outI will always outmatch you guys, toe to toe, I defeat consall the time

      March 4, 2012 at 00:33 | Report abuse |
  14. Ilona

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  15. Amirreza

    It is sometimes so dfcfiiult to remember that one's children are simply human beings, too. They are not perfect, nor are they less deserving of the courtesy and respect we want for ourselves. Once they begin to be able to articulate their needs, it is too late. We need to treat them as sacred, flawed beings from day one. I used to believe mine were perfect, but every time they displayed an imperfection, it led me to doubt my parenting (how did I mess this child up already?!). That was too exhausting! I think you and Michelle are both right. Trust yourself.

    March 6, 2012 at 01:10 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Alejandro

    I find a vast majority of the reader's on CNN's posts to be unbelievably brainless, I like that there are at least a select few that can articulate coherent thoughts. It is truly infuriating that some of the people type before even forming a complete thought.

    I for one was impressed by the research presented in this article due to the fact that I have had some fairly close calls to driving sleepy after a long day. I was always curious on how this would compare to drunk driving and now next time I think I would much rather take a nap before heading out again. I have always heard about people who died because they fell asleep at the wheel; when the thought finally hits me that this could truly happen to just about anyone, even if they do not think they will fall asleep. And I am horrified thinking back to the nights I just barely made it home only to pass out in the car before even taking off my seat belt. Truly a scary thought.

    March 10, 2012 at 21:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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