Driver Fatigue: The Danger Of Getting Behind The Wheel While Tired

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5 September 2023

Driver Fatigue: The Danger Of Getting Behind The Wheel While Tired

Driving while exhausted is extremely dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that in 2017, over 90,000 crashes reported to police result from driver fatigue. These crashes caused 800 deaths. The NHSTA noted that fatalities in drowsy-driving crashes tends to be higher than in other non-alcohol-related accidents, due to both high rates of speed and delayed reaction times. These crashes further result in 50,000 injuries and cost over $12 billion every year.

These statistics may not tell the whole story. Government officials suggest that these numbers may actually be lower than the reality, as there is no test to determine drowsy driving. Two states in the United States don't have even a code in their highway traffic act that attributes accidents to driver fatigue.

Who is at Risk?

Sleep deprivation can happen to anyone, but there are specific groups that are statistically more at risk. This includes young people, particularly young men, between the ages of 25 and 34. Experts suggest this may be due to lifestyle factors, maturational changes or even changes in sleep patterns as young people age.

Other groups at risk include shift workers, such as medical workers whose work patterns disrupt natural sleep patterns.

A final group at risk are people with untreated sleep apnea or other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy. It is thought that twenty-two million Americans may suffer from undiagnosed sleep apnea alone.

Driving Under the Influence of Sleep Deprivation

Most people wouldn't even consider getting behind the wheel after having a few too many drinks, yet don't think twice about driving when they're absolutely exhausted. However, the effects of sleep deprivation or even drowsiness can actually mimic the effects of alcohol on the brain. Studies suggest that getting behind the wheel while sleep deprived is equivalent to driving while legally drunk.

It makes sense given how the body responds — being awake for eighteen hours produces the same effects as having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05%. Staying awake for at least twenty-four hours can produce results similar to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10%, which is higher than the legal limit in all states. Lack of sleep can also increase the effects of even small amounts of alcohol.

The First Hour Can Be the Worst

Risks may be highest for drivers, particularly long-haul truckers, in the first hour of driving. Experts attribute this to a phenomenon known called sleep inertia. Sleep inertia occurs shortly after waking from sleep, and it may be worsened by a poor night's sleep or for truckers sleeping in their berths. It can impair short-term memory cognitive functioning, reaction time and even the driver's ability to resist sleep.

The Effects of Driver Fatigue

Falling asleep behind the wheel is only one of the possible repercussions of driving while fatigued. Microsleeps can also be an issue. These sleep periods can last from a fraction of a second to more than thirty seconds. You may not even realize they're happening. However, nodding off, even for a moment, can put you and every other driver on the road at risk. In just four or five seconds, your vehicle can travel the length of a football field. A lot can happen in that time. You can miss a turn, clip another car or veer off the road. You may even forget the last few miles you drove.

Sleepiness can also affect the way you react in order to correct any mistakes, and can cause you to overreact or overcorrect and put everyone in further danger. Simply put, fatigue will slow your reaction time. According to a NHSTA study, even moderately fatigued individuals can have an impaired increase in reaction time that will hinder them from avoiding a collision. Fatigue causes a decline in performance on attention-based tasks, which includes an increase in periods of non-responding or delayed responses.

Fatigue also leads to deficits in information processing, along with your ability to process and react to hazards on the road. This means you will not react as quickly as you need to changing road conditions, other drivers or pedestrians. Your ability to make sound, rapid decisions will also be impacted when you are sleep deprived.

Finally, sleep deprivation can impact your vision, leading to blurry vision or tunnel vision. The latter can cause a loss of peripheral vision, a critical ability that you need to drive safely.

High Costs

Driving while tired can result in devastating consequences and serious injuries to you and others. However, it isn't just the immediate costs you should be concerned about. The National Sleep Foundation reports that several drowsy driving incidents have resulted in jail sentences for the drivers involved. Lawsuits against individuals and companies whose employees were involved in drowsy driving crashes have resulted in multi-million-dollar settlements.

Alertness Tricks Don't Work

The methods drivers may use to trick their brains into feeling more awake don't really work, at least not for long. This includes smoking, ingesting caffeine, opening windows or turning up the music. Fresh air and loud sounds may make you feel more awake for a moment or two, but the effects won't last.

The same is true for smoking and caffeine. In fact, ingesting too much caffeine can lead to insomnia, headaches, irritability and nervousness. If you're tired when you consume it, it is unlikely to take effect as quickly as you need it to and if you're a regular caffeine user, the effects may be minor anyway. When you're bored or performing a repetitive task like long-distance driving, tricks and defences to mask your sleepiness won't work and you will feel even sleepier.

Stay Safe On the Road

The only real cure to fatigue is sleep. Before you get behind the wheel, ensure you've had enough rest. If you haven't, consider delaying your trip or finding a way to get to your destination without you having to get behind the wheel.