Drowsy Driving: Symptoms, Stats, And Steps To Prevent It

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Photo from Fedor Stroganov

In high school, my good friend and I were probably the only two kids in school without curfews. I worked a night job as a nightwatchman at a car dealership, and he pretty much raised himself, the product of a divorced home where the parents were still at war. We found ourselves bored out of our minds a lot of nights, spending a lot of time together “on the clock” at the dealership when we probably should have been sleeping.

One night, my friend showed up with an odd story. He’d been driving around in his truck, trying to find something to do (other than go home and sleep, of course). He could feel his eyelids getting heavy, but was confident he’d be just fine. The next thing he knew, he was driving through a cow pasture with no idea of how he got there, nor how long he’d been going.

We had a good laugh over the subject, but the topic of drowsy driving is certainly no laughing matter. Luckily, he’s still alive, and we both now understand how truly not-funny that was, especially when considering how easily he could have ended up a statistic.

Speaking of statistics, the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) recently released a ream of data on auto crashes throughout the United States. The info shared numerous facts and figures on the causes and costs of accidents as well as other related data. Tucked into the section on driving behaviors, I.I.I. found that fatigue was responsible for “about one in six fatal crashes” each year (16.5 percent) from 1999 to 2008, adding that these findings (initially reported by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety) were “much higher” than a previous report issued by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1983 to 1993. At that time, just north of three percent of traffic fatalities were caused by “drowsy driving.” http://www.iii.org/issues_updates/auto-crashes.html

Furthermore, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll, 60 percent of Americans have driven while feeling sleepy and 37 percent admit to actually having fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year. http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-topics/drowsy-driving

With all the talk of drunk driving and distracted driving being huge killers — and no doubt, they are — drowsy driving often gets overlooked. But it shouldn’t. Considering that in 2012, the amount of traffic fatalities rose to 33,561 from 32,479 the previous year — a 3.3 percent jump and the first since 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — that’s thousands of lives that could have been saved with a little extra awareness.

(Also, numerous accidents — and potentially millions of dollars in insurance claims and rising premiums — could be avoided.)

That’s why it is important to recognize these signs of drowsy driving before it’s too late:

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Frequent blinking

  • Heavy eyelids

  • Daydreaming

  • Wandering and disconnected thoughts

  • Trouble remembering what you’ve just driven

  • Missing exits or traffic signs

  • Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes

  • Trouble keeping your head up

  • Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip

  • Feeling restless and irritable

If any of these signs start to occur — especially if they are occurring more than once while driving — it’s best not to take chances. Pull over and grab a quick power nap. Find a place to park away from oncoming traffic and call a friend to come get you. If you absolutely insist on staying behind the wheel and “toughing it out,” then place a call to someone who will keep you company. Often times, the act of communication can wake you up long enough to get you home.


In Summary

Drivers must understand that it only takes a split second to cause an accident. While drowsy driving is not the most common cause of traffic accidents and fatalities, it’s certainly a significant risk. With fatalities on the rise, motorists should be reminded that some of the most serious threats they will face do not come in the form of a bottle or a smartphone. Some originate from within.

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