The National Sleep Foundation found about half of U.S. adult drivers admitted to drowsy driving when they were tired. Studies have proven that sleep deprivation can affect driving as much as (and sometimes more than) alcohol. Like driving drunk, driving tired can be deadly, but it is preventable.
Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, Nov. 1-8, serves to remind drivers that drowsy driving is impaired driving. Driving with more than 20 hours without sleep is the equivalent of driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08%, the legal limit. Tired drivers can also fall into “micro sleeps,” or brief losses of consciousness that can last for four or five seconds. At 55 miles an hour, a car will travel more than 100 yards down the road during a micro-sleep.
What makes driving while tired especially dangerous is that most people do not know the exact moment that sleep overcomes their body whether in bed, on a couch or at the wheel.
Causes of Drowsy Driving
The two main causes of drowsy driving are lack of quality/quantity of sleep, and driving at times you would normally be sleeping. Young drivers, shift workers, commercial drivers and people with untreated sleep disorders or with short-term or chronic sleep deprivation are at an higher risk.
Still, only New Jersey and Arkansas have fatigued driving laws. The Arkansas sleepy driving law is almost never enforced. To convict someone, a death must occur with proof the driver had not slept for 24 hours before the accident. New Jersey’s tired driving law is called Maggie’s Law for Maggie McDonnell. McDonnell was killed when a driver — who admitted he had not slept for 30 hours and had been using drugs — crossed three lanes of traffic and struck her car head-on in 1997. Maggie’s Law defines fatigue as being without sleep for more than 24 consecutive hours.
Still, the Centers for Disease Control notes that tired drivers do not need to be awake for so many hours to be impaired. Tired drivers have slow reaction times for braking or steering and inability to make good decisions. In the worst cases, tired drivers fall asleep behind the wheel.
Signs of Being Too Tired to Drive
Interestingly, it is not always driving at night, for long trips or old age that result in tired drivers. According to the sleepfoundation.org, more than one in four drivers who reported falling asleep said that it happened between noon and 5 p.m. More than half said they had been driving for less than an hour before falling asleep. Drivers under age 25 make up for half of the tired driving crashes.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and sleepfoundation.org note these signs that you may be too tired to drive:
- Frequent yawning or difficulty keeping your eyes open
- “Nodding off” or having trouble keeping your head up
- Inability to remember driving the last few miles
- Missing road signs or turns
- Struggling to keep your speed
- Trouble focusing, frequent blinking and/or heavy eyelids
- Having reveries or daydreams
- Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating and/or hitting rumble strips
- Feeling restless, irritable or aggressive
Avoiding Drowsy Driving
To avoid endangering others on the road, it is important to get a good night’s sleep. Seven to nine hours is recommended by sleep experts. It is also good practice to avoid driving when you would typically be asleep or driving alone for long distances. A companion who stays awake can take a turn driving as well as help see the warning signs of driver fatigue.
The Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles recommends these steps for avoiding sleepy driving:
- Read the warning label on your medications and do not drive after taking medications that cause drowsiness.
- On long trips, take a break every 100 miles or two hours.
- Drink caffeine to increase alertness. Keep in mind, turning up the radio, drinking coffee or rolling down the window may help you feel alert for a brief period, but are not effective ways to support alertness to drive safely overall.
- If you are having difficulty focusing, frequent blinking or heavy eyelids, pull over in a safe place to rest before continuing to drive.
- The Florida Department of Transportation maintains multiple rest areas, service plazas, truck comfort stations and welcome centers throughout Florida. There are great places to stop and take a break. For more information, visit fdot.gov/maintenance/restareas.
- If you have been up for 20 hours or more, do not drive. It is not safe for you and all others on the road. Get adequate rest before you travel.
Drowsy Driving Accidents
Unfortunately, falling asleep at the wheel can be difficult to prove in an accident, particularly if the at-fault driver does not admit to lack of sleep. An experienced personal injury attorney knows how to investigate and gather necessary evidence.
As a driver, you have a responsibility to drive safely, obey the traffic laws, and respect the rights of other drivers, including getting enough sleep or not getting behind the wheel if you are too tired to drive.