We hear a lot about the dangers of texting while driving, but motorists are doing another dangerous thing behind the wheel: nodding off.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated eleven percent of adults admitted to falling asleep while driving in 2012. The real numbers are probably even higher since some drowsy drivers don’t remember falling asleep and others won’t admit it.
Scientific studies show that drowsy drivers behave a lot like drunk drivers, says Wisconsin Sleep director Dr. Ruth Benca, and it certainly appears that way on the roadways. Wisconsin State Patrol Major Sandra Huxtable says drowsy drivers weave, fail to maintain consistent speeds, veer off the road and hit rumble strips.
Measuring the severity of the problem is difficult because there is no easy test for drowsiness. Without the equivalent of objective breathalyzers and toxicology reports, officers must conduct independent evaluations and draw their own conclusions. Also, Wisconsin does not have a specific citation for drowsy driving. Huxtable says motorists are cited for reckless driving. While a significant infraction, reckless driving—which carries a fine of $380 and six points—lumps drowsy driving in with other dangerous driving behaviors, making it impossible to track the incidence.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 2.5 percent of fatal motor crashes and two percent of nonfatal crashes involve drowsy driving. That amounts to more than 100,000 crashes, 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths every year. Many experts suspect the numbers are actually far higher due to underreporting and tracking challenges.
Huxtable counts drowsy driving as one of many issues we face on our roadways, but she acknowledges that it is starting to garner more attention. A recent conference on the behaviors of young drivers included some discussion about the problem of drowsy driving among that segment of the population.
“The youth of today, teenagers and [those in their] early twenties, they are becoming more and more nocturnal. They’re staying up until two or three in the morning and then we’re getting them up early for school,” Huxtable says. “It is a problem that is not as recognized as it should be.”
Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer. She blogs about wellness in Health Kick.