If that driver in the next car isn’t speeding, intoxicated or distracted by texting or talking on the phone, there’s a good chance he or she is barely awake.
The study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety also noted that drowsy driving has been identified as a contributing factor in 16.5 percent of fatal crashes in the U.S. The new analysis, based on crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, reports a significantly higher accident rate involving drowsy drivers than many previous estimates.
“Many of us tend to underestimate the negative effects associated with fatigue and sleep deprivation,” said Kathleen Marvaso, a vice president with AAA.
Teenagers and men are much more likely than other groups to fall asleep while driving, according to the results of the AAA telephone survey of 2,000 U.S. residents who are at least 16 years old. The survey’s release coincides with Drowsy Driving Prevention Week.
Tim Desoky, 26, who recently moved to Chicago to attend medical school, said he got his wake-up call about the dangers of drowsy driving after a high school wrestling team practice. Desoky was exhausted but got behind the wheel anyway.
“I was in the far right lane, the road curved but I continued going straight and ended up all the way to the left,” Desoky said. He nearly hit the center divider but awoke when he ran over the shoulder’s safety bumps.
“Luckily, I woke up in time,” he said.
In cases where a crash occurred, men were 61 percent more likely than women to have been drowsy at the time, the survey said. Drivers ages 16 to 24 were 78 percent more likely than drivers between the ages of 40 and 59 to have been drowsy prior to an accident. More than half the crashes where drowsy driving was a factor resulted in the driver drifting into other lanes or off the road.
The study’s authors acknowledged that estimates vary widely on the prevalence of drowsy driving and its role in causing accidents. But it said the major studies of crashes involving drowsy driving were conducted more than 15 years ago and that the issue does not receive as much attention as other leading causes of crashes.
The responses in the new poll indicate that sleepy drivers often fail to realize just how fatigued they are before getting in their vehicles. Some 70 percent said they felt awake enough to drive and then found themselves struggling to stay conscious.
Alexandra Wales, 32, a regional sales manager from Minneapolis in Chicago on business, said she routinely drives long distances for work.
“I’ll fly and then get into a car, sometimes for several hours, sometimes late at night or unfamiliar with my surroundings,” said Wales, who usually calls friends when she’s feeling fatigued. “There have been many times when I can’t see straight anymore.”
The AAA recommended that drivers get at least six hours of sleep the night before a long trip and to travel at times when the driver is normally awake.
Scheduling a break every two hours or every 100 miles is also advised, the AAA said, along with stopping somewhere overnight rather than trying to drive straight through to the destination.
The study noted that drivers who are very sleepy suffer from reduced reaction time and impaired vision and judgment, similar to the effects of driving while drunk. If a driver drinks coffee or other caffeinated beverages to help stay alert, he or she should do so about 30 minutes before driving to give the caffeine time to enter the bloodstream and take effect, the AAA said.
The best deterrent to falling asleep behind the wheel is to travel with an alert passenger, the report noted. But drivers who are alone can police themselves by paying attention to symptoms of sleepiness, some of which are not as obvious as having trouble keeping your eyes open or frequent yawning.
Other warning signs include daydreaming or having disconnected thoughts; feeling irritable and restless; and missing road signs or driving past an intended exit, the report said.
Stelios Makridis, 40, a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute of Design, said he knows his body too well to take a chance at driving while tired.
“There were cases when I was really tired so I just took a cab,” Makridis said. “Why would I make it more complicated when I can just get in a cab? It’s so easy.”
– Jon Hilkevitch and Serena Maria Daniels