Drowsy Driving Needs More Study and Prevention Strategies

Drowsy driving presents a significant hazard on the nation’s roads, taking its toll in deaths, injuries and property damage.

A recent article in the journal Sleep calls for more study and strategies to prevent drowsy driving. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) spearheaded the study.

Parker Waichman notes that drowsy driving contributes to crashes that cause injuries, deaths and property damage.

Drowsy Driving Behind Scores of Accidents and Fatalities

Drowsy driving usually happens when a driver has not slept enough, but it can also be due to untreated sleep disorders, medications that cause sleepiness, alcohol, or shift work, particularly long shifts and night shifts. Commercial drivers who drive long stretches on monotonous roads are at risk for sleepiness.

Being sleepy affects the driver’s ability to drive safely. Drowsiness

  • Makes drivers less able to pay attention to the road.
  • Slows reaction time if you have to brake or steer suddenly.
  • Affects a driver’s ability to make good decisions.

The Extent of the Problem

Authorities have no way to reach a firm estimate of the number of crashes caused by drowsy driving. There is no field test to determine drowsiness. Drowsy driving is not usually part of an accident report unless the driver indicates drowsiness or fatigue or the police have circumstantial evidence, such as a car being driven off a road at night. But drowsy driving is known to be the cause of a significant number of preventable accidents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that an estimated one in 25 adult drivers (18 years and older) report having fallen asleep while driving in the previous 30 days.

In 2014, an estimated 846 fatalities were caused by accidents related to drowsy driving, which is about 2.6 percent of all traffic fatalities. From 2005 to 2009, the last years for which statistics are available, drowsy driving caused 85,000 vehicle crashes. Thirty-seven thousand of these accidents caused injuries and 45,000 caused property damage. But this may be an underestimate, NHTSA says. Drowsy driving may be a factor in as many as 6,000 fatal crashes each year.

Causes of Drowsy Driving

The major cause of drowsy driving is not getting enough sleep—doctors say adults need seven hours and teens needs eight to nine hours. But many other factors contribute to driver fatigue and sleepiness, including the extended work hours enabled by computers and smartphones and the growing number of people holding more than one job. Many people work far more than eight hours a day.

Sleep medications like the popular drug Ambien can remain in the system longer than prescribing information indicates. Someone taking Ambien can experience lingering effects of the medication, even after the recommended sleep time. Morning drowsiness, the “hangover” effect of sleep medication, increases the risk of accidents during the morning commute to work or when driving children to school. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended a lower starting dose for Ambien (zolpidem) for women.

The FDA recommended the lower dose be lowered because “new data show that blood levels in some patients may be high enough the morning after use to impair activities that require alertness, including driving.” The announcement focused on drugs containing zolpidem, including generics and brand name products Ambien, Ambien CR, Edluar, and Zolpimist.

A number of nonsleep medications can cause drowsiness, including narcotic pain relievers (codeine and morphine), antihistamines, antidepressants, sedatives and antianxiety medications, some blood pressure medications, muscle relaxants, and antinausea medications. People taking these medications should be aware of the risk of drowsiness and should speak with their doctor about this danger. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “drugs like antihistamines can affect your ability to drive, and are associated with an increased risk of next-day driving accidents.” Even small amounts of alcohol can cause sleepiness, increasing the risk of falling asleep at the wheel.

Warning Signs of Drowsy Driving

The CDC offers warning signs of drowsy driving

  • yawning or blinking frequently
  • difficulty remembering the past few miles driven
  • missing the exit
  • drifting from one’s lane
  • hitting a rumble strip on the side of the road

A driver who feels drowsy or notices signs of drowsy driving should pull over to a safe area and take a short nap. On long trips, safety experts recommend switching drivers every two hours.  A lone driver should take a break every couple of hours.  Caffeine can help the driver be more alert.

Help for Those Injured by a Drowsy Driver

If you or someone you know has been injured in an accident caused by a drowsy driver, contact the attorneys at Parker Waichman LLP for a free, no obligation case evaluation. To reach the firm, fill out the contact form or call 1-800-YOURLAWYER (1-800-968-7529).



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