Anything that reduces a driver’s ability to assess driving conditions and react appropriately can be dangerous. Drowsy driving, for example, could be as dangerous as driving impaired by alcohol. Sleepiness slows reaction time, decreases awareness and impairs judgment. It is likely that most people on the road could use a little more sleep. The issue is really the recognition of when fatigue is at a point that driving is dangerous.
Statistics compiled by the U.S. government report that motorists who fall asleep at the wheel kill 1,500 people each year, and injure another 71,000. The National Sleep Foundation believes, however, that drowsy drivers—motorists who are at high risk of falling asleep at the wheel—and fatigued drivers—motorists who have driven long hours without rest—often play a role in crashes that are attributed to other causes. For example, the U.S. government lists driver inattention as the primary cause of approximately one million police-reported crashes each year. The National Sleep foundation points out that drowsy driving and fatigue make such lapses of attention more likely. These lapses can occur at any time of the day or night, but appear to be most prevalent at night, during the early morning, and in mid-afternoon.
In a recent poll conducted by the foundation, 62 percent of all adults who were surveyed reported having driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy sometime during the prior year. Twenty-seven percent reported that they had, at some time, dozed off while driving. Twenty-three percent stated that they knew someone who had crashed after falling asleep at the wheel during the past year.
The Sleep Foundation’s National Sleep Awareness Week (March 28 – April 3, 2005) just happens to coincide with the spring time change when we all lose an hour’s sleep. UBC psychologist Stanley Coren has conducted a study that shows that on the Monday after the spring time change, the Canadian traffic collision rate increases by about 7% and that U.S. figures show a similar spike in crashes. Dr. Coren’s examination further shows that Monday’s mayhem occurs not when you might expect it, in the morning, but rather in the afternoon rush hour—at the end of the first workday. Late-day fatigue, not early-morning darkness, appears to be the cause of the problem.
Published tips on avoiding or stopping driving when drowsy or fatigued tend to focus on long trip driving. But there is a big concern about impairment in day-to–day driving as well. If a driver routinely fails to get enough sleep, that driver’s “short-haul” driving back and forth to work and on errands during a regular weekday may be poor. A tired driver may not cause accidents, but may have less than adequate defensive driving skills, which are so necessary in our crowded traffic environment.
Fatigue has long been a standard allegation in the details of negligence alleged in motor vehicle accident cases. Generally it is difficult to prove so it would rarely if ever come to public attention in newspaper headlines.
Please drive safely.