If you have been hit by a drunk driver or involved in an accident with a texting teen, you probably know that you may have a negligence claim against the other driver. But did you know that it can be just as dangerous for a driver to get behind the wheel after a long day?
While the dangers of drunk driving and distracted driving are well publicized throughout the United States and the focus of many law enforcement initiatives and public service announcements, drowsy driving gets far less attention – and could be a critical factor in getting the legal compensation you deserve if you’ve been injured by a drowsy driver.
Experts and officials have long been aware of the potential dangers of drowsy driving. The higher accident rate among fatigued drivers is a key motivator for the federal hours-in-service regulations for commercial truck drivers. In fact, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association (FMCSA) says about 6,000 commercial trucking accidents each year involve fatigued drivers. But with isolated exceptions, the issue does not get the same level of attention as other risk factors for individual drivers.
The fact that drowsy driving is so widespread makes it difficult to target and eliminate, but that’s not the only obstacle. It is much more difficult to identify and respond to the problem of fatigued driving than other commonly-cited risk factors. Roadside Breathalyzer tests and clear signals of intoxication enable law enforcement officers to identify when someone is operating under the influence and there may be witnesses to distracted driving or evidence such as recent cellphone activity. But there is no immediate signal that somebody didn’t get enough sleep last night and no handheld device to measure fatigue. In fact, sleep deprivation is so common in our society that the signs often don’t appear out of the ordinary at all.
Americans Generally Don’t Get Enough Sleep
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 35% of U.S. adults got less than seven hours of sleep per night. Additional statistics assembled by the American Sleep Association reveal that more than 37% of those surveyed reported having unintentionally fallen asleep during the day at least once during the preceding month;4.7% reported having nodded off or fallen asleep behind the wheel.
In addition, about 25 million U.S. adults suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, two symptoms of which are excessive daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating during the day.
How Common is Driving While Fatigued?
41% of respondents to a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAA) survey admitted to having fallen asleep or nodded off while driving at least once in their lifetimes and 11% reported having done so in the past year. More than half of those who said they’d fallen asleep at the wheel during the past year reported that the incident had occurred on a high-speed highway.
The study also revealed that many natural assumptions about drowsy driving are dead wrong. Falling asleep at the wheel isn’t something that necessarily happens late at night or after hours on a long, lonesome highway. 26% of those who reported they’d fallen asleep while driving in the previous year said it had happened between noon and 5:00 p.m. And 59% said they’d been driving for less than an hour when they fell asleep. A later report from the same organization concluded that more than 69% of drowsy driving crashes occurred during daylight hours.
The Risks of Driving While Fatigued
The most obvious risk associated with driving on too little sleep is nodding off at the wheel. But even drivers who manage to stay awake present a significant risk to themselves and others on the road.
The European Road Safety Observatory reports that fatigue results in:
- Reduced alertness;
- Longer reaction times;
- Memory problems;
- Poorer coordination;
- Less efficient information processing;
- Diminished task motivation;
- Greater irritability and a tendency to react more aggressively.
How Dangerous is Drowsy Driving?
With sleep deprivation so widespread and demands on our time so constant, many Americans simply accept driving while fatigued as part of life. But the fact that it happens all the time doesn’t mean it’s safe.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that about 100,000 reported motor vehicle accidents each year are caused in whole or part by drowsy drivers, resulting in about 1,500 fatalities and more than 70,000 injuries. Other sources have put those numbers much higher, pointing out that discrepancies in the way different states report fatigued driving or falling asleep at the wheel and the fact that self-reporting is the primary source of information likely lead to significant underreporting.
Using data from the NHTSA’s National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, AAA researchers concluded that the risk of a motor vehicle accident increases significantly for every lost hour of sleep. Specifically:
- A person who has slept for at least six hours but less than seven in the previous 24 hours is 1.3 times as likely to be involved in an accident as one who slept seven hours or more;
- A person who slept at least five hours but less than six in the previous 24 hours is 1.9 times as likely to crash as one who slept seven hours or more
- A person who slept at least four hours but less than five hours in the previous 24 hours is 4.3 times as likely to be involved in a crash as one who slept seven hours or more
- A person who slept less than four of the preceding 24 hours is 11.5 times as likely to crash as one who slept seven hours or more
Fighting Drowsy Driving
Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that most of the measures people take, such as opening a window or turning up music, help to alleviate the deficits created by drowsy driving. There is some data suggesting that caffeine or a short nap may help briefly. But the best way to avoid the dangers associated with fatigued driving is to get enough sleep and get off the road if you find yourself fighting fatigue.
If You’ve Been Injured by a Drowsy Driver, Help is Available
Operating a motor vehicle with impaired abilities is negligent, whether that impairment results from drug use, alcohol consumption, lack of sleep, or even a known medical condition. If you’ve been injured in a crash with a driver who nodded off or became inattentive due to fatigue, you may be entitled to compensation. Schedule a free consultation today the experienced personal injury attorneys of Plevin & Gallucci to learn more.