Drowsy Driving Kills Nearly as Many People as Drunk Driving—So Why Aren’t We Talking About It?
After her son, Tyler, died due to drowsy driving, Kerrie Warne is trying to raise awareness of the dangerous practice.
Kerrie Warne and her husband, Kyle, had an agreement with their 18-year-old son, Tyler. In order to keep his driving privileges, he had to maintain good grades, practice road safety, and promise to call his parents any time he was in a situation that made it too dangerous to drive. Tyler’s parents warned him against drinking and driving, texting while driving, having too many passengers in the car, and messing around with the radio when he was behind the wheel. But they didn’t know to caution against the perilous act of driving on too little sleep.
The call came in the middle of the afternoon in March 2010. Tyler had driven his car off an interstate near St. Louis, Missouri, where it hit a tree and flipped several times. Tragically, Tyler was killed in the accident. Investigators later confirmed what Tyler’s passenger reported: Tyler had fallen asleep at the wheel.
“We talked with him about everything we were educated about as parents,” Kerrie tells SELF. “It never even crossed my mind to have a conversation with him about drowsy driving.”
Drowsy driving occurs on a spectrum. The less alert you are, the more dangerous it is.
Hans Van Dongen, Ph.D., the director of the Sleep and Performance Research Center at Washington State University, tells SELF that on one end of that spectrum is a completely alert, responsive driver. On the other is someone who falls asleep at the wheel and causes an accident. In between, you have someone who’s too tired to be driving safely but hasn’t crashed. This middle ground is far too common.
In a 2013 Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, one in 24 adults reported driving while sleepy during the previous month. The report polled 147,076 people in 19 states and Washington, D.C. “These estimates are based on individuals’ self-reports, so this is probably an underestimate,” Anne Wheaton, Ph.D. an epidemiologist in CDC’s Division of Population Health who studies drowsy driving and contributed to the report, tells SELF.
Drowsy drivers experience lapses of attention when their brains stop taking in and processing information, Van Dongen says. This is a normal part of falling asleep and, as drowsy drivers can attest, may “occur regardless of what task an individual is engaged in,” Van Dongen says.
When driving, this can present as difficulty keeping your eyes open or keeping your head up, nodding off at the wheel, having trouble remembering the last few miles you’ve driven, missing turns or traffic signs, drifting out of your lane, and having difficulty maintaining your speed, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. You may also experience frequent blinking, heavy eyelids, and restlessness or irritability, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
The scariest part is that you may not even realize you’re experiencing these lapses of attention while driving. On a long highway, for example, there isn’t as much to react to as there would be on a congested city street. But these lapses become dangerous when a pedestrian steps out into traffic, a car approaches from the wrong direction, a deer bounds across the road, or any other number of driving hazards arises. That’s when a delayed response can lead to accidents.
Drowsy driving can happen in a variety of situations, whether you’re waking up early for a car ride or trying to push through your exhaustion to finish a trip.
In many cases, you may technically be functional and feel like you’re getting around just fine—but not actually be alert enough to be driving a piece of machinery.
“You cannot miss sleep and still expect to be able to safely function behind the wheel,” David Yang, executive director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, said in a 2016 press release discussing new research on just how dangerous drowsy driving can be.
That research examined police-reported data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (NMVCCS), analyzing 7,234 drivers involved in 4,571 crashes between July 2005 and December 2007. Drivers who only got four to five hours of sleep within a 24-hour period more than quadrupled their risk of getting into an accident when compared with drivers who got seven hours of sleep (the minimum amount recommended for adults). Drivers running on too little sleep had a similar crash risk to someone driving at or slightly above the legal alcohol limit of 0.08 blood alcohol content.
The numbers suggest that drowsy driving is not far behind drunk driving in terms of mortality risk.
Neurologically, drowsiness and alcohol intoxication affect the brain in different ways. As you become sleep deprived, groups of neurons in your brain, which send messages between your brain and body, may take short breaks where they temporarily “fall asleep,” Van Dongen says. Emerging research suggests that, if a large enough group of neurons does this at once, this can cause a lapse in attention. And, of course, if you actually fall asleep, you’re not able to pay attention at all.
Alcohol, on the other hand, slows the functioning of neurotransmitters in your brain, which carry messages between your neurons. This can lead to issues like poor attention, impaired coordination, and slower reaction times, according to the National Institutes of Health, all of which can also contribute to poor driving.
Though they work in different ways, drowsy and drunk driving both kill far too many people. A recent NHTSA report released in March 2017 estimates that 7 percent of all vehicular crashes and 16.5 percent of fatal vehicular crashes involve a drowsy driver. By those numbers, approximately 6,000 people died in drowsy driving-related crashes in 2016, the report explains, adding that this number may be underreported and closer to over 8,000 people dying due to drowsy driving each year. For context, the NHTSA reports that 10,497 people died in drunk driving crashes in 2016.
It’s easier to pinpoint how many people are involved in alcohol-related crashes than ones linked to sleep deprivation. Unlike with drunk driving, there is no breathalyzer or blood test to determine how tired someone is. Many drowsy driving crash reports gather data from police reports, where sleepiness may not necessarily be mentioned, Wheaton adds. Finally, she notes, alcohol can make people sleepy long before they have reached the point where it’s inappropriate, or illegal, to drive. But in an instance where alcohol-related sleepiness caused a crash, Wheaton says that police reports are much more likely to mention alcohol than drowsiness, “even though both might be contributing.”
If you have a long drive coming up, take steps ahead of time to make sure you’re alert enough to handle it—or come up with a plan for what to do if you start getting drowsy.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends taking a quick nap before a long drive, arranging to drive with a buddy when possible so you can switch out every couple of hours to get some rest, not rushing as you drive, and avoiding driving between midnight and 6 A.M. when you may feel most tired. Of course, you should also stay away from even small amounts of alcohol if you know you’re going to drive.
Wheaton, from the CDC, also suggests making sure you get enough sleep in general, not just the night before a road trip, and avoiding medicines that could make you sleepy. Be sure to speak with your doctor if you need to drive but also take medications that have sedative effects. She also recommends paying attention to any signs that something is wrong with your sleep. “For example, if you snore really loudly, which tends to be an indication that you have sleep apnea, it’s important to be treated for sleep disorders,” she says.
If you’re already on the road when you realize that you are too tired to drive, the National Sleep Foundation recommends pulling over somewhere safe to nap (and remembering that you may still be groggy for about 15 minutes after waking). Another option is to stop for a caffeinated drink and give the caffeine enough time to boost your alertness. The exact amount of time this will take depends on factors like your body composition and how much caffeine you drink, but 99 percent of it should be absorbed into your system within 45 minutes.
You should also be sure your loved ones—especially teenagers or others just learning to drive—know that drowsy driving isn’t something to mess around with.
Education is crucial to prevention, which is why Kerrie Warne launched a nonprofit called Tyler Raising Education/Awareness for Driving Drowsy, (TyREDD, pronounced “tired”). She partnered with Matthew Uhles from the Clayton Sleep Institute, which treats sleep disorders and conducts sleep-related research, to give presentations about drowsy driving and the importance of getting enough rest. In their presentations, the two discuss what happened to Tyler and talk about the importance of getting enough sleep.
“You want to do everything you can to protect your kids,” Kerrie says. “I didn’t think to talk [to Tyler] about sleep. It seems irresponsible to me now.”
Her hope is that discussing drowsy driving with teenagers who are just beginning to get behind the wheel, like Tyler was, will help inform their behavior throughout adulthood—and spare other families from having to go through the same terrible fate.