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State Safety Advocate Report: Drowsy Driving a Factor in 20% of Crashes

Throughout the 1980s, the U.S. federal and state governments recognized that there was a major highway safety problem caused by public attitudes towards drinking and driving. At the time, many people saw driving under the influence of alcohol as “no big deal” or simply part of life in a car-dependent nation. However, public health officials recognized the problem and engaged in a decades-long campaign to change public attitudes towards DUI. Since that time, significant progress has been made regarding reducing drunk driving and thus many lives have been saved

The reason behind raising this piece of history is that, similar to the past when the risks of drunk driving were dismissed, many people today see drowsy driving as “no big deal” or just “part of the rat race.” However, like in earlier times, this type of attitude conceals the full extent of the problem. Furthermore, this type of attitude reduces the likelihood that the issue will be examined earnestly and that it will be addressed.

However, National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) is taking aggressive steps to address the problem presented by drowsy driving. In fact, the threat posed by tired drivers has pressed NHTSA to expand its definition of impaired driving to include not only drunk, drugged and distracted driving but also drowsy driving.

Traffic Deaths Increased by 8% in 2015

According to statistics released by state safety advocates, traffic fatalities increased by nearly 8 percent in 2015. Increases in the number of impaired drivers almost assuredly contributed to this spike in highway deaths.

According to the report, approximately 84 million sleep-deprived Americans drive to school, work, and other locations annually.  More than 5,000 fatal accidents are attributed to insufficient rest or sleep by the driver. The safety advocates believe that drowsy driving accidents are the cause behind up to 20 percent of highway fatalities. A Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) report pegs the costs imposed by drowsy driving deaths at $109 billion, not including property damage.

What Are the Effects of Drowsy Driving?

Sleep is a necessary biological function for humans and nearly all types of animal life. While sleep is not fully understood, researchers know that sleep is essential for restorative processes in the body. When an individual has insufficient sleep he or she may face a number of impairments. This may include a reduced ability to assess situations and process information, compromised decision-making processes, slowed reflexes, and many other symptoms. When an individual is particularly fatigued, sleep may become irresistible and the individual may fall asleep without realizing it.

Essentially, this presents a situation where a driver’s ability to safely operate his car, truck, motorcycle or other vehicle is significantly compromised. In extreme situations, the driver may even lose consciousness due to fatigue. Allowing fatigued drivers to get behind a wheel is clearly incompatible with safe roads and highways.

Some Drivers Are at Greater Risk of Drowsy Driving

The report indicates that certain cohorts of drivers are particularly at risk for fatigued or drowsy driving. Despite perceptions of “young invincibles” that can burn the candle at both ends, the study found that teens and young adults are particularly at risk of fatigued driving accidents. The study found that these individuals accounted for more than half of all drowsy driving accidents.

Aside from age-based risk factors, there are a number of other characteristics that can result in an increased risk of drowsy driving. For instance, workers who work long hour, irregular hours, or who work nights also face an elevated risk of drowsy driving crashes. Unfortunately, this description captures the daily routine of many professional truck drivers and commercial drivers. Furthermore, Americans with sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, also face an increased risk of being in a drowsy driving crash.

What Can be Done About Drowsy Driving Crashes?

As stated at the beginning of this post, the key to addressing drowsy driving is the same as the key to addressing drunk driving. That is, public officials and other influential individuals must work to change public attitudes and perceptions regarding fatigued driving. Shifts in attitudes regarding tired driving will reduce the pressure on individuals to push their body beyond what they feel is safe. Furthermore, increased acceptance and awareness will encourage businesses and trucking companies to better address and account for this risk.

In the meantime, personal responsibility by drivers is essential. While it may take some time for society to recognize the full extent of this risk, this change in attitudes will start with individual drivers.

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