© 2023 WRVO Public Media
NPR News for Central New York
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The dangers of drowsy driving


Every day, many of us drive cars, and every night, we’re meant to get seven to eight hours of sleep. But sometimes, seven to eight is more like four to five, and this can have some nasty effects behind the wheel. In fact, over one-third of drivers on the road right now didn’t get enough sleep last night.

So, what does this mean for the safety of our roads? To find out, “Take Care” spoke with Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research for AAA.

According to Nelson, you risk crashing just as much when sleep deprived as you would when drunk driving. In a study conducted by AAA, which included various factors like age, car model, and weather conditions, those who were sleep deprived were much more likely to be at fault in an accident than those who had received enough rest.

And just missing a few hours of sleep, Nelson says, can considerably increase your risk of crashing. If someone gets four hours of sleep, for example, they have doubled their risk of crashing and are just as impaired as if they were drunk.

Without proper rest, reaction time slows significantly. Along with that, visual processing is diminished, further inhibiting our ability to react in a timely way. That means drowsiness can cause some serious crashes. Being alert is often the determining factor in preventing an accident, while drowsiness can be our downfall.

Credit Emily Boyd / Flickr
car crash

And we all know what being sleepy feels like. Your eyelids are droopy, your mind is foggy, and all of a sudden your head jerks up. “Did I just fall asleep? That was just a split second, right?”

It might have been a bit longer, Nelson says. “Microsleeps,” or what we might call nodding off, occur when your body involuntarily starts to doze off, only to be awoken by the sensation of your head dropping. And although it only feels like your eyes closed for a split second, microsleeps can actually last three to four seconds. That’s a long time to have your eyes closed while operating a vehicle.

Newer models of cars are beginning to include advanced driver assistance technologies, such as lane monitoring, and even fatigue detectors. But these technologies, Nelson says, are only meant to assist. It’s still our responsibility to do the driving.

That being said, sleep experts recommend seven to eight hours of sleep per night. If this doesn’t work with your schedule, Nelson notes that sleep is cumulative, so napping is always an option. As long as you are receiving seven to eight hours within the course of twenty-four hours, that qualifies as well-rested.

Credit Kylan Robinson / Flickr

As far as who’s at risk for drowsy driving, Nelson mentions that men are typically the risk takers and thus, may attempt to fend off their drowsiness instead of pulling over. Novice drivers are at a greater risk too, as they are still adjusting to life behind the wheel. Shift workers are also at a disadvantage, due to their inconsistent sleep schedules. But in general, drowsiness doesn’t discriminate, and anyone who hasn’t received enough sleep poses a risk to themselves and everyone else on the road.

For this reason, Nelson stresses the importance of educating the public about the dangers of driving drowsy. Many people, he says, might not believe how serious it can be. After all, one-third of drivers are not receiving the necessary seven to eight hours of sleep per night. That’s a lot of sleepy people on the road.

“What we prioritize,” Nelson says, “is the safety and well-being of our families. Making sure that we get enough sleep each night is not a selfish act, it’s one of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and your family.”