By Francis M. Smith
Thanks to efforts by transportation safety organizations and law enforcement, the public has become much more aware of the risks involved in engaging in certain behaviors while driving. For decades, public awareness and enforcement campaigns have been working to reduce the rate of drunk driving, with much success. Similar efforts have been implemented in recent years to pursue similar results in curbing distracted driving, which has dramatically risen as a roadway danger with the rise in smartphone ownership. However, there is another condition that can be as dangerous as intoxication or distraction when behind the wheel, and it has received much less public attention. Much like drunk or distracted driving, drowsy driving can kill.
Though it's not exactly breaking news that falling asleep at the wheel is dangerous, less emphasis has been placed on preventing drowsy driving than on other dangerous driving behaviors. This may be due in part to incomplete information. According to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), between the years 2005 and 2009 only 2.5 percent of fatal traffic collisions involved a driver who was fatigued or sleepy, for a total of 5,021 fatalities nationwide during that period. Any preventable death is a tragedy, but those figures don't set off alarm bells for most people. Unfortunately, it's likely that those numbers vastly underestimate the real toll of drowsy driving.
The reason that the NHTSA figures are so conservative is that it's often difficult to know when a driver involved in an accident was drowsy at the time. In some cases, a driver may be unaware of the degree to which fatigue or drowsiness impaired his or her driving. Other drivers may not wish to admit to the police that they nodded off behind the wheel. Some drivers could not report their level of drowsiness, having been killed or incapacitated by the accident. Unlike alcohol intoxication, there is no simple test to determine the presence of drowsiness experienced by a driver, compromising his or her ability to make observations and to react properly to traffic conditions.
In a study performed by the AAA Foundation, more than half of drivers in the accidents studied had “unknown” levels of pre-crash attentiveness; in other words, it was impossible to determine whether they were alert or drowsy. Only about one-third of the accidents examined in the AAA Foundation study involved only drivers known not to be drowsy before the crash. Using sophisticated statistical techniques to estimate the likelihood of drowsiness in the “unknown” drivers, the AAA Foundation came up with figures that are much more dramatic than the NHTSA's. They estimate that 21 percent of all fatal crashes involve at least one drowsy driver. That is nearly a factor of 10 greater than the government figures.
While the data illustrating the risks of driving while sleepy or fatigued may not be widely known, most people intuitively understand that drowsy driving is dangerous. Respondents to Traffic Safety Culture Index surveys by the AAA Foundation were nearly unanimous in their agreement that driving while very sleepy is a bad idea, with 96 percent calling it “unacceptable.” So why do people still do it? Unfortunately, there is a very human tendency to overestimate our own abilities and underestimate our possible impairments. Most people will agree that others shouldn't drive while fatigued, but still think, “I'm not that tired; I'll be fine.”
Busy schedules, long work hours, and poor sleep habits also contribute to producing drivers that are rarely well-rested. According to the National Sleep Foundation, about 70 million people suffer from sleep disorders or sleep deprivation. 1 in every 10 drivers has fallen asleep within the past year. Most of these drivers are likely people who thought they “weren't that tired.” It can be a difficult situation for some people; life doesn't stop after a sleepless night. People need to get to work, school, or other obligations, and may feel they have no choice but to drive. People who are out late need to get home. If you find yourself in that situation, it can be tempting to try to push through the fatigue to get where you need to go. But it can also be dangerous.
If you feel drowsy or sleepy, but don't have the option of trading off with a more alert driver, you still have a couple of options. Unless you cannot do so for health reasons, drink something containing caffeine. Give the caffeine about 30 minutes to take effect before driving, however. If caffeine isn't an option for you, or you're too tired for a strong cup of coffee to make up the difference, your best option may be to find somewhere safe to pull over and take a short nap. The one thing you cannot control is the behavior of other drivers; if you are the victim of an accident caused by a drowsy driver, call me or another experienced personal injury attorney for information about your options and, if appropriate, legal help.
If you or a loved one have been injured in a serious accident, please contact me or call me at 908-233-5800 for a free consultation.