Asleep at the Wheel
Directorate of Assessments and Prevention
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
Drowsy driving is a major problem in the United States. The risks and often tragic results are alarming. Drowsy driving is the dangerous combination of driving and sleepiness or fatigue. This usually happens when a driver has not slept enough, but it can also happen because of untreated sleep disorders, medications, alcohol consumption or shift work.
No one knows the exact moment when sleep comes over their body. Falling asleep at the wheel is clearly dangerous; but being sleepy affects your ability to drive safely even if you don’t fall asleep. Drowsiness makes you less able to pay attention to the road, slows reaction time if you have to brake or steer suddenly, and affects your ability to make good decisions.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths in 2013. However, these numbers are underestimated, and up to 6,000 fatal crashes each year may be caused by drowsy drivers. An estimated 1 in 25 adult drivers (aged 18 or older) report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days. So who is more likely to drive drowsy?
- Drivers who do not get enough 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.
- Drivers who use medications that make them sleepy.
The warning signs of drowsy driving include yawning or blinking frequently, difficulty remembering the past few miles driven, missing your exit, drifting from your lane and hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road. According to a survey of among nearly 150,000 adults in 19 states and the District of Columbia, 4 percent reported that they had fallen asleep while driving at least once in the previous 30 days. People who snored or usually slept six or fewer hours per day were more likely to report falling asleep while driving.
There are several things drivers can do to prevent drowsy driving, including:
- Get enough sleep! Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep per day, while teens need at least eight hours.
- Develop good sleeping habits, such as sticking to a sleep schedule.
- If you have a sleep disorder or symptoms of one, such as snoring or feeling sleepy during the day, talk to your doctor about treatment options.
- Avoid drinking alcohol or taking medications that make you sleepy. Be sure to check the label on any medications or talk to your pharmacist.
A study from Virginia Tech revealed 20 percent of car crashes are caused by fatigue, with young drivers particularly vulnerable. Previous estimates attributed fatigue to only 2 or 3 percent of crashes. Fatigue can cause weariness, sleepiness, irritability, reduced alertness, impaired decision-making, and lack of motivation, concentration and memory. Studies have shown that fatigue is linked to health problems such as heart disease.
The Army is not immune to the drowsy driving problem either. Although fatigue is not the leading cause of vehicle accidents in the Army, it was involved in 34 Class A-D mishaps over the past four fiscal years. For example:
- 18 of 34 reported fatigue mishaps occurred between 0001 and 0500 hours and indicate the driver fell asleep at the wheel.
- 16 of 34 involved Soldiers who failed to get adequate sleep before departing on leave or pass or waited to depart their leave location until late evening or early morning on the last day of their leave or pass. Several had recently given blood and indicated they felt lighted-headed and fatigued while driving home or back to work.
As in the civilian world, fatigued driving is also believed to be an underreported causal factor in Army vehicle mishaps. Always take the proper steps to prevent drowsy driving so you don’t find yourself asleep at the wheel.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and EHS Today.