When most people think about distracted driving, they imagine a reckless motorist texting behind the wheel. While this does occur, and more often than we'd like to think, we don't always remember the cognitive distractions that can be just as dangerous.
One such cognitive distraction is drowsy driving. Driving while sleep deprived can put drivers and others on the road at serious risk.
What is drowsy driving?
Drowsy driving is when someone gets behind the wheel while fatigued or sleepy. Specifically, it is driving after not getting enough sleep, with an untreated sleep disorder, after taking drowsy medication, after performing shift work or after drinking alcohol. Commercial vehicle drivers can also have an increased risk of driving while drowsy.
Warning signs of drowsy driving include:
- Frequent yawning or blinking
- Forgetting the past few miles of driving
- Missing an exit
- Lane drifts or hitting rumble strips repeatedly
How dangerous is it?
Drowsy driving makes drivers pay less attention to the road, slows their reaction times and affects their decision-making capabilities. Estimates indicate one in 25 drivers over the age of 18 report falling asleep while driving within a 30-day period.
This led to nearly 800 fatalities in 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They also estimate that 90,000 police-reported crashes in 2015 involved drowsy drivers.
Is drowsy driving preventable?
Drivers can take steps to avoid driving drowsy, the most obvious of which is to get at least seven hours of sleep per day as recommended for most adults, or eight hours for teenagers. Coffee and energy drinks often won't cut it.
Drivers should also aim to stick to a sleeping schedule and avoid taking medications or drinking alcohol before getting on the road. If there is any concern a driver has a sleep disorder, they should see a doctor.
If someone realizes they are driving drowsy while already on the road, scientists recommend drinking one or two cups of coffee and pulling over to a safe place for a 20-minute nap, which can increase alertness in the short term.
Drivers can be aware of how their own drowsiness affects their driving and look out for the signs of drowsy driving in other motorists.