We’ve all done it – gotten behind the wheel when we’re less than alert, pulled out of the driveway with sleepy eyes because obligations required us to do so. Maybe it was a big day at the office, an early flight or a child’s school drop-off. Perhaps it was coasting home on empty roads at night at the tail end of a long trip.
There are many scenarios for drowsy driving. No matter the reason, it’s important to understand the dangers of sleep-deprived driving for your own safety as well as the safety of other drivers on the road.
Falling asleep at the wheel is obviously very dangerous, but in reality, being drowsy at the wheel, even if you don’t doze off, still poses some serious risks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowsiness behind the wheel can:
- Make drivers less attentive
- Slow reaction times
- Hinder a driver’s ability to make decisions
In fact, thousands of fatal car crashes in the United States each year are due to drowsy drivers. Thousands more result in injuries, wrecks and damage to personal property. Cognitive impairment after being awake for 18 hours is the same as what it would be with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%. Adding six more awake hours to that (for a total of 24 hours without sleep) brings cognitive impairment to a level equivalent to a 0.10% BAC – that’s higher than the legal limit in all states! For a person who is between 160 and 180 pounds, a 0.10% BAC is what you’d reach after about five drinks.
Who is most at risk for drowsy driving?
Individuals who are more likely to drive drowsy are:
- Shift workers (who work long shifts or the night shift)
- Commercial drivers
- Drivers with untreated sleep disorders such as sleep apnea
- Drivers who use sedating medications
- Drivers who do not get adequate sleep
If drowsy driving is a recurring problem, you should seek medical evaluation immediately. Given the grave threat that drowsy driving presents to the safety of our roads, the National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project was spearheaded by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine in order to educate the public about the risks of drowsy driving. The initiative recommends that states:
- Include drowsy driving education as a requirement for driver’s education programs
- Provide information about drowsy driving in state curricula and driver’s manuals
- Include questions related to drowsy driving on driver’s license exams
In addition, the project hopes to spur transportation companies in particular to adopt regulations that minimize the incidence of sleep-deprived driving. Proposed rules include: adhering to strict hours-of-service regulations; scheduling work shifts based on sleep needs and circadian timing; and screening drivers for sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea.
Whether you’ve gotten behind the wheel in a sleep-deprived state one time or many, the reality is that you present a risk to yourself and others every time you do so.
Our eos sleep doctors remind you to make it a priority to get sufficient sleep, say “no” to driving when sleep deprived and always pull off the road to a safe location when tired if you do not have a passenger who can switch off on driving duty. Knowing how to recognize the signs of drowsiness is equally important to avoid a tragic accident.
If you have made it a priority to get an adequate amount of sleep each night and you still regularly wake up feeling exhausted, it’s possible that a sleep disorder may be affecting your sleeping hours. The first step to getting long-term relief is identifying whether you have sleep apnea. Start the process by taking a short online quiz to find out your risk level.