The dangers of driving while impaired are often associated with drinking alcohol, but there are other behaviors that impair judgment, affect reflexes, and slow reactions. Driving drowsy is one such behavior. Sleep deprivation can negatively impact a driver’s ability to make rapid and thoughtful decisions and represent a risk to other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians alike.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 1 in 25 motor vehicle operators 18 years and older have reported falling asleep behind the wheel at least once in the past 30 days. That equates to about 350,000 of the licensed drivers in Illinois driving drowsy and having trouble keeping their eyes open and on the road.
Vehicle related accidents and injuries involving drowsy drivers are a serious matter, and often victims are unaware of the risk associated. We’re here to help provide you with the facts and some of the answers to questions we hear most from victims involved in and seeking compensation from an incident involving a drowsy driver.
Why is driving while fatigued dangerous?
To understand the severity of the dangers of driving while drowsy it’s important to look at the facts. According to research by the Sleep Foundation, about half of drivers 18+, which is roughly 168 million people, admit to getting behind the wheel while feeling drowsy. About 20% admit to falling asleep behind the wheel at some point in a 12-month period, with 1 in 25 people admitting doing so at least once a month. An overwhelming 50% admit this has happened at least once in their driving careers.
In 2017 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 91,000 police-reported crashes are the direct result of driver fatigue. About 795 deaths resulted from these police-reported crashes along with 50,000 injuries. According to the Sleep Foundation research, it is estimated that the cost of fatigue related crashes is anywhere from $12.5 to $109 billion per year.
Who is at risk of drowsy driving?
Anybody can find themselves in a situation where they are driving while drowsy, but some people in certain situations are at even greater risk. People with jobs that interrupt their sleep schedule, people doing night shift work, or people who get in the car to drive while suffering from sleep disorders are some of the higher at-risk groups. Research from the CDC identifies some of these greater risk groups as:
Drivers who do not get enough healthy sleep or enough hours of sleep.
Commercial drivers who operate vehicles such as tow trucks, tractor trailers, and buses.
Shift workers (who work the night shift or long shifts).
Drivers with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, where breathing repeatedly stops and starts.
People who use medications that make them sleepy.
What are signs of drowsy driving?
To help prevent fatigue related auto accidents or fatal crashes, it’s very important to know the symptoms of drowsy driving so that you can take appropriate action whether you are the driver or the passenger of a drowsy driver. The CDC points out the following warning signs of drowsy driving:
Yawning or blinking frequently.
Difficulty remembering the past few miles driven.
Missing your exit.
Drifting from your lane.
Hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road.
If you experience any of these signs of sleepiness, the CDC recommends pulling over and either getting some rest before getting back on the road or changing drivers if that’s an option. They don’t; however, recommend simply turning on the radio or opening a window as they have found this is not an effective way to regain any meaningful alertness while driving. Sleep is the best remedy to help prevent motor vehicle crashes due to sleep deprivation.
What are the effects of drowsy driving?
The effects that driving while drowsy can have on a driver are incredibly serious. When you’re fatigued and driving, your attention, judgment, decision-making, coordination, vigilance, and reaction time are greatly compromised.
The Sleep Foundation states, if you drive while drowsy, you will experience effects such as weaving back and forth between lanes, having trouble maintaining appropriate speeds and distances from other vehicles, and the inability to react quickly enough to other potential obstacles on the road.
This hazardous behavior due to sleep deprivation is similar to someone with a blood alcohol content that is over the legal limit. They also found that a significant portion of drowsy driving crashes occurred because a driver drove off the road or into another lane at high speed.
What to do if you are sleepy while driving?
The CDC recommends that if you find yourself fatigued and drowsy while driving, then you should pull over and either get some rest or switch drivers if that’s an option.
National Highway Traffic Safety (NHTSA) Tips to Stay Awake while Driving
Get enough sleep on a daily basis to maximize your overall alertness. You especially want to get plenty of sleep before a long road trip. This is especially true for teens as they are more susceptible to fatigue and, thus, more vulnerable to drowsy driving crashes.
Avoid drinking any alcohol before driving. Blood alcohol levels not only impair your judgement but drinking alcohol also interacts with sleepiness, which can greatly enhance your fatigue.
Be aware of any medication you take that could cause drowsiness. It’s recommended that you take public transportation if you are currently taking any medication where drowsiness is a side-effect.
When you do drive, avoid heading out during times of the day when people are naturally less alert, like the late afternoon or at night. These times are typically in the late afternoon and between the hours of midnight and 6am.
If you do find yourself getting sleepy while driving, once again, the recommendation from the NHTSA is to always pull over and get some rest before getting back on the road to avoid crashes.
Common Misconceptions for How to Stay Awake in Your Car
Be cautious of the common misconception that simply turning on the radio or opening the window will restore your alertness and help you avoid a crash. Even caffeinated drinks are not the best solution on their own as they only provide some alertness for a very short amount of time if you’re already sleep deprived.
If you do drink caffeine, the NHTSA suggests the better solution would be to stop at a safe and well lit rest stop for a 20 minute nap followed by one or two cups of a caffeinated drink to make you more alert.
Is driving drunk worse than being tired?
Drowsy driving is often compared to drunk driving because the effects of both are quite similar. So the question of which is worse is a common one. Statistically speaking, one could argue that drunk driving is worse based on the number of reported fatalities. In 2017, 795 deaths caused by drowsy driving is dwarfed by the equivalent drunk driving number of 9,949 deaths.
Fatalities Caused by Sleeping at the Wheel Higher than Reported
Based on these numbers, it’s easy to say drunk driving is far worse. But part of the danger of drowsy driving is the fact that it’s not only hard to detect drowsiness as the reason for a crash (as opposed to a definitive alcohol test) but, also, that it’s often not reported. According to the Sleep Foundation, experts believe that the true number of deaths from drowsy driving is closer to 6,000 annually. This brings drowsy driving to a lethal level much closer to drunk driving.
Is it illegal to fall asleep while driving?
To date there is no official vehicle code section in the U.S. for failing to stay awake while driving. However, in the last few years, more states are taking action to enact legislation that could incriminate someone for causing an accident because they were drowsy or fell asleep at the wheel of a car. In some states if it can be proven that a driver’s sleepiness caused an auto accident, they could be charged with reckless driving or vehicular manslaughter in cases where there is a fatality.
What are some of the consequences of drowsy driving crashes?
Besides the severe injuries or death that could happen, there are other consequences that occur as a result of drowsy driving crashes that can affect you personally and financially.
Fines and Jail Sentences: Drowsy driving incidents can result in fines and could lead to a jail sentence for the driver.
Inconsistent Reporting Practices: To date, there is little law enforcement training focused on identifying drowsiness as a crash factor. Therefore, you should be diligent if you are involved in an incident where you suspect fatigue is a factor. File a police report immediately following the incident and push for the other drivers involved to be present to ensure the incident is reported accurately and from all parties.
Lawsuits: Settlements have been awarded to crash victims as a result of claims filed against individuals involved in drowsy driving crashes. Money has also been awarded for lawsuits against companies where an employee is involved in an incident on the job.
What should I do if I’m in a drowsy driving crash?
Drowsy drivers contribute substantially to accidents on Illinois roads. As the numbers above discuss, there are several factors that Illinois drivers can rely on to help avoid some of these dangerous situations such as avoiding driving at night. Other factors, such as the employment status and the age of other people on the road simply can’t be avoided.
Steps to Take After Crashes Caused by a Tired Driver
If you are involved in an auto accident with a drowsy driver, it’s important that you take the appropriate immediate steps following the incident: