Report: Drowsy driving is a sleeper threat in crashes
Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
Published 3:27 p.m. ET Aug. 7, 2016 | Updated 12:03 a.m. ET Aug. 8, 2016
Drowsy driving is a common but neglected problem responsible for thousands of deaths each year in crashes that cost more than $100 billion, concludes a report by state safety advocates released Monday.
Drowsy driving hasn’t received the attention of drunken or distracted driving, partly because diagnosing the problem is difficult. Many crashes involve a single car and driver, and definitive clues as to the cause are lacking.
Police cited drowsy driving in at least 72,000 crashes from 2009 through 2013, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those accidents included 41,000 injuries and 800 deaths, NHTSA said.
However, the AAA Foundation analyzed crashes where vehicles were towed from the scene. It found that the role of drowsiness was unknown in half the cases and difficult to determine in others. The group estimated drowsiness causes an average 328,000 crashes per year, with 109,000 involving 6,400 fatalities.
The estimated cost of drowsy crashes, including insurance, medical expenses and lost productivity totaled $109 billion last year, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association’s report “Wake Up Call! Understanding Drowsy Driving and What States Can Do About It.” The 73-page report was funded by State Farm insurance.
“Drowsy driving is more pervasive than we recognize, more commonplace and we’re all guilty of it,” said Pam Fischer, a former New Jersey highway safety official who wrote the report. “And we have the ability to correct it. The fix is simple: Get more sleep.”
Risks of drowsy crashes are similar to drunken driving, with less scanning of the road and even nodding off at the wheel, according to the report. Slower reaction times, more frequent eye closure and failure to pay attention are among the risks.
A driver awake for 18 hours will perform comparably to someone with a 0.05% blood-alcohol content, the report said. After being awake 21 hours, the driver mimics a 0.08% alcohol level, which is the definition for drunken driving in all states.
A high-profile case involved a June 2014 collision on the New Jersey Turnpike that severely injured comedian Tracy Morgan and killed his friend James McNair. A truck rear-ended Morgan’s limo because the driver was fatigued, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled.
Another prominent case involved a World Wide Travel bus crash on March 12, 2011, on Interstate 95 in the direction of New York City from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. The NTSB said the crash, which killed 15 passengers and injured 17, was caused by driver fatigue and the time of crash: 5:38 a.m.
“Really, it’s a lethal combination,” Fischer said.
There is no definitive test like a breathalyzer to determine if fatigue caused a crash. Clues for investigators include single-car crashes with just a driver in the car veering off the road with no evidence of braking, often late at night or early in the morning.
“Law enforcement lacks protocols and training to help officers recognize drowsy driving at roadside,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “And if a crash occurs, the drowsy driver might not report the cause due to concerns about monetary and other penalties.”
Driving while drowsy is common, as anyone who has worked a night shift or taken a long trip knows. Nearly one-third (31.5%) of all drivers acknowledged driving during the previous month while having trouble keeping their eyes open, according to a AAA Foundation survey of 2,545 drivers in 2015. More than two in five drivers (43.2%) acknowledged nodding off behind the wheel at least once in their lives, the survey found.
Only two states have laws penalizing drowsy drivers who injure or kill someone. A New Jersey law took effect in 2003 and applies to reckless drivers who go without sleep for 24 hours. An Arkansas law adopted in 2013 took a similar approach and also applied to motorists “in the state of being asleep.”
The Arkansas law has resulted in three convictions, but it is unclear how many cases have been brought under the New Jersey version, according to Monday’s report.
Several states have adopted educational measures, and others are debating criminal penalties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Massachusetts and Tennessee have programs for highway message boards to discourage drowsy driving. Florida’s transportation department web site maps out rest areas for drivers.
Other steps include installing rumble strips — grooved patterns on the roadway — to alert drivers when they’ve left traffic lanes, cable fences in road medians and better marketing for rest stops.
The National Institutes of Health offered more than a dozen suggestions in the report for getting more rest. A couple of tips were to avoid exercise and caffeine a few hours before bed, relax before sleeping and have a comfortable place to sleep.
“We all have the potential to be drowsy,” Fischer said. “Not everybody drinks. Not everybody is distracted by cell phones. But everybody has the potential to do this. We have the ability to do something about this.”