Study shows that 10 percent of car crashes involve drowsiness

TRENTON, NJ — The most in-depth drowsy driving research ever conducted in the United States, using footage of everyday drivers, found that the percentage of crashes involving drowsiness is nearly eight times higher than federal estimates indicate, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

The difficulty in detecting drowsiness following a crash makes drowsy driving one of the most underreported traffic safety issues. The new research provides an unprecedented analysis of in-vehicle video from more than 700 crashes, confirming that the danger of drowsy driving soars above federal estimates.

“Drowsy driving is a bigger traffic safety issue than federal estimates show,” Robert Sinclair, manager of media relations for AAA Northeast, said in the press release. “Drivers who don’t get enough sleep are putting everyone on the road at risk. By conducting in-depth analysis using everyday drivers, we can now better assess if a driver was fatigued in the moments leading up to a crash.”

In the study, researchers examined video of drivers’ faces in the three minutes leading up to a crash. Using a scientific measure linking the percentage of time a person’s eyes are closed to their level of drowsiness, the researchers determined that 9.5 percent of all crashes and 10.8 percent of crashes resulting in significant property damage involved drowsiness. Federal estimates indicate drowsiness is a factor in only 1 to 2 percent of crashes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 35 percent of U.S. drivers sleep less than the recommended minimum of seven hours daily. In a recent related AAA Foundation survey, nearly all drivers — 96 percent — said they view drowsy driving as a serious threat to their safety and consider it a 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.

“As many Americans struggle to balance their busy schedules, missing a few hours of sleep each day can often seem harmless,” Sinclair said. “But missing just two to three hours of sleep can more than quadruple your risk of a crash, which is the equivalent of driving drunk.”

Knowing the warning signs of drowsiness can help drivers avoid dozing off behind the wheel. The most common symptoms include having trouble keeping your eyes open, drifting from your lane and not remembering the last few miles driven. Drivers should not rely on their bodies to provide warning signs for drowsiness and should instead prioritize getting at least seven hours of sleep before hitting the road.

“Don’t be fooled — the only antidote for drowsiness is sleep,” Sinclair said. “Short-term tactics like drinking coffee, singing and rolling down the window will not work. Your body’s need for sleep will eventually override your brain’s attempts to stay awake.”

AAA recommends that drivers travel at times of the day when they are normally awake, avoid heavy foods before driving long distances, and avoid medications that may cause drowsiness and impairment. For longer trips, drivers should schedule a break every two hours or 100 miles, and travel with an alert passenger so they may take turns driving. Also, take a quick nap; pulling over to a safe place and taking a power nap — at least 20 minutes, but not more than 30 — can help to keep you alert on the road.