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Asleep At the Wheel?

Twenty years ago, in 1998, the (US) National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) co-produced a report based on the results of a literature review and the opinions of the Expert Panel on Driver Fatigue and Sleepiness on the key issues around the thousands of motor vehicle crashes per year in which drowsy driving was a factor.  More specifically, NHTSA discussed data indicating that in the recent preceding years (i.e. the mid-1990s) drowsy driving had been cited by police as a factor in about 56,000 crashes annually in the US, resulting in annual averages of roughly 40,000 nonfatal injuries and 1,550 fatalities.

The NHTSA report included the acknowledgment of wide recognition that “these statistics underreport the extent of these types of crashes.”  The report, which is available online addresses the biology of human sleep and sleepiness, the “chronic predisposing factors and acute situational factors recognized as increasing the risk of drowsy driving,” the common characteristics of drowsy driving crashes, and the population groups at highest risk.

The report proposed preventive countermeasures including a focused educational campaign.  Regrettably, the latest NHTSA reporting on the scope of drowsy driving, while showing some improvement in absolute numbers of fatalities, otherwise shows a continuation of the estimated problem:  [From the current NHTSA website] “In 2014 there were 846 fatalities (2.6% of all fatalities) recorded in NHTSA’s FARS database that were drowsy-driving-related. These reported fatalities (and drowsy-driving crashes overall) have remained largely consistent across the past decade. Between 2005 and 2009 there was an estimated average of 83,000 crashes each year related to drowsy driving. This annual average includes almost 886 fatal crashes (2.5% of all fatal crashes), an estimated 37,000 injury crashes, and an estimated 45,000 property damage only crashes.”

On Feb. 8, 2018), however, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released study results from “the most in-depth drowsy driving research ever conducted in the U.S. using footage of everyday drivers” showing that “the percentage of crashes involving drowsiness is nearly eight times higher (emphasis added) than federal estimates [have been indicating.]”

Media reporting on the AAA study quotes Dr. David Yang, executive director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety saying: “Drowsy driving is a bigger traffic safety issue than federal estimates show. … Drivers who don’t get enough sleep are putting everyone on the road at risk. By conducting an in-depth analysis using video of everyday drivers, we can now better assess if a driver was fatigued in the moments leading up to a crash.”

Media reports also cite The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying “35 percent of U.S. drivers sleep less than the recommended minimum of seven hours daily.”  And this source in reference to the AAA Foundation survey noted that “nearly all drivers (96 percent) say they view drowsy driving as a serious threat to their safety and completely unacceptable behavior.  However, 29 percent admitted to driving when they were so tired they had a hard time keeping their eyes open at some point in the past month.”

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