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Sleepy driving causing more car crashes than we thought

February 16, 2018 by Steven M. Gursten

AAA-FTS study shows sleepy driving involved in 8-10 times more car accidents than U.S. government had estimated

Sleepy driving: AAA-FTS prevalence study is wake-up call about dangers

Most people know that sleepy driving is dangerous. We just had no idea until now just how dangerous it was. One recent study on sleepy driving provides one heck of a wake-up call.

Specifically, in its “Prevalence of Drowsy Driving Crashes: Estimates from a Large-Scale Naturalistic Driving Study,” the AAA – Foundation for Traffic Safety reported:

  • Compared to “official statistics from the U.S. government [which] indicate that only approximately 1%–2% of all motor vehicle crashes involve drowsy driving,” our examination of “the prevalence of driver drowsiness immediately prior to crashes” showed that “observable driver drowsiness, assessed on the basis of eyelid closures, was present in an estimated 8.8%–9.5% of all crashes and 10.6%–10.8% of those severe enough to be reportable to the police,” i.e., “crashes that resulted in significant property damage, airbag deployment, or injury.”
  • “These results suggest that driver drowsiness is a substantially larger problem than official government statistics indicate.”

Sadly, given the fact that drowsy drivers are five times more likely to be involved in an auto accident than well-rested drivers, the study results are bad news for the safety of everyone – drivers, passengers, pedestrians and bicyclists.

How to prevent sleepy driving

When people ask me what they can do to prevent sleepy or drowsy driving, I give them the following advice.

Know the warning signs:

  • Frequent yawning or blinking
  • Difficulty remembering the past few miles
  • Missing exits
  • Drifting from lane to lane
  • Hitting a rumble strip

Prepare before getting behind the wheel:

  • Get rest; most adults need seven to nine hours
  • During log trips, schedule breaks about every 100 miles or two hours
  • Arrange for a travel companion to talk with and share the driving
  • Avoid alcohol and medications that may cause drowsiness

Take immediate action if you suspect you’re at risk of falling asleep behind the wheel:

  • Be aware of rumble strips: Drifting over them is a sure sign that a break from driving is needed
  • Find a safe place to stop for a break or overnight
  • Drink two cups of coffee, then take a short power nap

How did AAA-FTS measure drowsiness to determine the prevalence of sleepy driving?

For the AAA-FTS study, driver-participants had their “driving and in-vehicle behaviors … monitored continuously using in-vehicle cameras and other data collection equipment for a period of several months between October 2010 and December 2013 as they drove in their own vehicles.”

Drowsiness was assessed based on “the percentage of time that a person’s eyes are closed” during the “final three minutes of video preceding each crash …”

Significantly, drivers were “classified as drowsy if [their] eyes were closed in 12% or more of the video frames in the three-minute or one-minute period preceding the crash …”

Why don’t government stats reflect the magnitude of the sleepy driving problem as demonstrated by AAA-FTS?

The AAA-FTS notes that government drowsy driving statistics are “derived from police reports based on post-crash investigations …”

As such, the study observes, “[d]river drowsiness is an under-reported traffic safety problem, largely because its role in crashes is typically difficult to ascertain.”

Specifically, the study identifies the following “difficulties”:

“Unlike impairment by substances such as alcohol, there is no test analogous to a breathalyzer that the police can administer at the roadside to assess a driver’s level of drowsiness at or shortly after the time of a crash. Moreover, a driver who was drowsy before a crash may appear fully alert afterward and may be reluctant to volunteer to the police that he or she was drowsy. In the case of a driver who was not actually asleep at the time of the crash but was operating at a reduced level of alertness, the driver may not even recognize that he or she was drowsy nor that drowsiness may have contributed to the crash. In extreme cases, all relevant information about the driver’s pre-crash state is lost if the driver is deceased and there are no passengers able to provide information about the driver’s pre-crash state.”

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