By on November 2, 2017


We’ve all been there. It’s late, we haven’t slept enough, and we’re cruising down a chilly freeway wrapped in warmth and white noise. Then, unexpectedly, we begin to nod off. From here, we can either spring back to a terrified state of consciousness that will sustain us the rest of the journey or we can fall asleep and ultimately destroy our vehicle — and maybe ourselves — in the process.

Drowsy driving is a real problem. But, while we’re always hearing about how it’s just as dangerous as driving drunk, we don’t often see statistics backing that up. That’s mainly because it’s a lot harder to assess someone’s tiredness than it is to give them a breathalyzer and toss them in the back of a squad car. But a 2014 study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimated drowsy drivers could contribute to 328,000 accidents annually, with around 6,400 being fatal. 

That’s around 20 percent of all vehicular deaths, according to AutoBlog, which turned us on to this topic in the first place.

So, what’s the solution? Well, nobody has a great handle on that right now. While some states have attempted to make sleepy driving illegal, it has to be the most difficult crime to prosecute in the world. If you’re pulled over for lousy driving, under suspicion that you might be too drowsy, odds are good that the sudden rush of adrenaline will perk you up so much that the police wouldn’t have any idea you were about to cozy up to the sandman.

New York and Washington state have introduced measures that would have made it a felony for a dozing driver to cause a crash that kills someone, but neither bill has passed. To date, only Arkansas and New Jersey have enacted such a law. However, both states require that a person be awake for a full 24-hour period to be worthy of criminal charges. In addition to being nearly impossible to prove in court, that’s also so far beyond the limits of normal tiredness that it isn’t likely to come up all that often.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) said that Arkansas has only yielded three convictions since 2013, when the law came into effect. “We don’t have a sleep meter, like we have a breathalyzer, so it’s difficult to recognize drowsy driving,” said Pam Fischer, a consultant for the GHSA. “It’s hard to prosecute, hard to make the case, and hard to enforce unless the driver readily admits it.”

Preventative measures may be a superior solution. A lot of states have included the risks of fatigued motoring as mandatory part of driver’s education and the Governors Highway Safety Association has launched a campaign to raise awareness on a national scale.

Having taken a lot of overnight drives, I can attest to roadside stops being a godsend. In addition to not being as fraught with as much criminal activity as you might assume, rest stops and service centers offer a place where you can rest your eyes for a few hours. Unfortunately, states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and South Dakota have closed a significant portion of theirs due to budgetary restrictions or lack of use.

“Closing rest stops doesn’t help with the drowsy driving problem,” said Fischer. “The only thing that helps you when you’re tired like this is to get sleep.”

They’re also one of the few ways to help truckers comply with federal laws limiting the number of hours they can drive without rest. Depending on payload and circumstances, truck drivers are required to rest every 11 to 14 hours and they absolutely don’t want to have to stop too early just because their next two pit stops were closed to save the state money.

“Shutting them down would be the end of an era,” said Joanna Dowling, a historian who researches rest areas and runs the website “Rest areas take you away from the road and the hecticness of travel and immerse you in the natural landscape.”

In the end, it’s up to the individual not to press on when they start feeling sleepy. All the rest areas in the world aren’t helpful if nobody uses them.

[Image: Garrett/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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29 Comments on “Driving Tired Remains a Persistent Problem With One Solution: Study...”

  • avatar

    Look, if you don’t want me driving half-asleep, let me drive fast enough to cut the trip from 18 hours to nine.

  • avatar

    Probably my worst vice, I don’t even bat an eye at getting up on three hours of sleep and knocking down 16 plus hours behind the wheel.

    • 0 avatar

      If you’re not sleepy, your performance isn’t inhibited at all, and your doctors verify that you are healthy I wouldn’t worry about it. I had a professor in college who gave his personal phone number for you to call him if you had any questions or wanted to debate philosophy. He literally only slept 3 hours overnight and was as sharp as a tack. He was well into his late 60s and figured that he was already on borrowed time because he had already spent a lifetime of conscious hours. In other words, he was living longer because he we spending more time actively living rather than sleeping. Instead of sleeping for 1/3rd of his life, he was sleeping 1/8th.

  • avatar

    One obvious solution is to set virtually all highway and freeway speed limits at the 85th percentile speed of free flowing traffic rounded to the nearest 5 mph interval – the safest way to set most speed limits.

    PART of the advantage for safety is to perhaps reduce a 9 hour trip to 8 hours. The more important factor is to let people drive legally at their natural safe speeds of travel, rather than trying to get them to drive at mind numbing slow speed where the drivers’ concentration level falls off to near zero because the task is too easy. It is a LOT easier to stay alert driving at the 80th-90th percentile speeds than at the 30th percentile where FAR too many highway and freeway speed limits are arbitrarily, improperly and less safely set.

    • 0 avatar

      The first time you awake from a pleasant slumber to find yorself at the controls of a speeding car, you’re going to be happy you weren’t going any faster.

    • 0 avatar

      I understand some states/commonwealths are notorious for strict speed limit enforcement; my condolences if you live in one of those but I haven’t lived anywhere where this is an actual problem. Highway patrols do in fact let the traffic flow, typically up to about 80 mph before they take an interest in you.

      It might be nice to make it official and have the flow of traffic reflected in speed limits so you don’t get ticketed by the LEO having a bad day, but I don’t think it would make a difference in traffic. It might embolden some percentage of drivers to push things even further.

  • avatar

    ” Unfortunately, states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and South Dakota have closed a significant portion of theirs due to budgetary restrictions or lack of use.”

    I like the way Massachusetts handles rest stops, by locating gas stations at them. Makes gassing up quicker, safer, and more convenient than doing the cloverleaf exit, and I expect rent from the gas vendors pays for the rest stop upkeep.

    • 0 avatar

      FL does this on the Turnpike. Most of the gas stops have a small food court in them as well as to feed the kids as Disney approaches… slowly (are we there yet?) The problem is on the Interstates where cloverleafs come up so often the idea of a gas station rest stop doesn’t compute. Plus one of the problems FL had was a string of murders at rest stops. This forced the state to post security guards at them which drove the cost way beyond standard maintenance like trash pickup. Oddly for state driven by tourism they quickly cut back the funding for keeping travelers safe driving to the mouse house.

      I often drive for 2 hours after being up stupid early (like 3AM) to go fishing. This is the one area in which automated driving can’t come soon enough. I dream of a day when I can push a button and have my tow vehicle merge into a special “auto drive” lane where the computer takes over and I can get some shut eye. Until that day arrive I found the answer to this problem is Mountain Dew. It keeps you awake and requires restroom breaks.

    • 0 avatar

      You see these in Massachusetts and Florida due to it being on the Turnpike. Regular interstate highways are forbidden by law from having commercial businesses at the rest areas (aside from a couple vending machines).

  • avatar

    On the criminalization front, as higher end vehicles add monitors to determine whether the driver is nodding off (with an eye towards stimulating the driver in some fashion), will prosecutors seek data from the monitors in suspected drowsy driving situations?

  • avatar

    Well, not all rest stops are a good thing. There was a large truck rest stop here in Ontario that ran into policing issues because of the availability of a wide range of drugs (mainly stay-awakes) and “ladies” who could be convinced to be overly friendly, if you know what I mean. Mind you, they also had a Bible Chapel.

  • avatar

    This has been well known for a very long time. That’s why roads have had rumble strips since before any of us were born.

    The problem is MADD. MADD made such a massive deal out of drunk driving that no one cared about anything else. If you’ve been drinking and don’t cause a crash, you’re the son of Satan and get the book thrown at you. If you’re tired and drift into oncoming traffic, you’re an unfortunate victim of circumstance.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s a strange bit of reasoning. Should no one publicize the danger of anything because it might divert attention from another danger? The logical result would be ignoring all dangers.

      Drunken driving is both easy to avoid and easy to detect. So it is vulnerable to policing, as it should be. Drowsy driving is almost normal, and is hard to detect.

      • 0 avatar

        BL, nothing wrong with publicizing, but DWI became a big business. From a legal perspective, it is the most profitable crime in the entire country. It lost focus of saving lives and refocused on making money. It was so successful that other dangerous forms of driving got ignored. They went so far overboard that the streets are less safe then they should be.

    • 0 avatar

      No mention yet on this thread about cell phones/texting while driving? I believe they are more fatalities cause by them than drunk or tired driving. I was almost a dead statistic of a cell phone addicted driver who ran a red light and T-boned me.

      • 0 avatar

        Distracted driving has always been a problem; cell phones/texting are just another method of distraction. People bring this up like everyone had both hands on the wheel with all their focus out the windshield prior to smartphones. Kids, dogs, shaving, makeup, eating, mapquest printouts, newspapers, etc.

        Some percentage of the driving population has always viewed the commute as an opportunity to multitask; smartphones didn’t cause this.

  • avatar

    A simple measure to implement would be a graphic representation of freeway exits on the road signs. That way drivers could pull off at the next (unfamiliar) exit knowing that they could get back on the highway. I know I’m reluctant to pull off onto an unfamiliar exit because I don’t know if I can reenter the freeway.

    Rumble strips help a lot. As do lane departure warning systems.

    The trouble with drowsy driving is that there is no convincing evidence that we can’t get away with it until we have a crash from falling asleep at the wheel. Even then repeats are possible, perhaps years later.

    As for accurate designation of the cause, why is it not appropriate to suggest people just be an adult, fess up, tell the truth, and take their lumps for their actions?

    • 0 avatar

      There usually are signs that says something akin to “no re-entry…” with a brief description of the direction or even interstate that occurs on.

      I truly wonder how often we travel on unfamiliar roads, except for the rare cross-country road trip. I’m sure my wife and I are somewhat unique in continuing the road trip means of travel.

      In Idaho, we have to go a long ways to get to anywhere…and all the interstates and most state highways within 500 miles are familiar to me. Same with TX and much of the south.

      Granted, I’d be less familiar in the NE states. But it’s not likely I’d be driving much anyways.

  • avatar

    From left field:

    If you are responbsible for anything that disturbs the sleep of others, you may be forcing on them a difficult choice.

    Say they have to get up and drive a long distance to a special event. Say your barking dog disrupted their sleep. Should they cancel their attendance at the event, or risk falling asleep at the wheel?

    You might think disturbing a neighbor’s slerp is not a big deal, but how many crashes result from this? And not just car accidents, but various industrial accidents and lowered job performace.

  • avatar

    Go back to vinyl bench seats, manual transmissions and arm-strong steering. 60’s era aerodynamics and chrome trim will also help keep you awake.

  • avatar

    I’m on “Monster” energy drinks for the last 5 hours of all-day, all-night suicide missions. Mostly I only drink Coca Cola or equivalent, any other times.

    I don’t care what music the copilot puts on, metal/rock/punk/pop, as long as it’s fast, hard driving and sounds great played LOUD. Surprise me.. “Walking in LA”? “Talk Talk” by “Talk Talk”? Who knew??

  • avatar

    Capsule Hotels. Swipe a credit card. $20 gets you eight hours. Done. Use half of it toward road taxes.

  • avatar

    DO you want to hear the Truth about “speed” limits?

    Here goes:

    They are not speed limits;
    they are slowness limits.

    For every true speedster who does deserve
    a ticket for driving too fast, there are
    99, give or take a handful, who get tickets
    simply for not driving slowly enough…

    “The Allyagottado Folks and the
    Sleep-Inducing Speed Limits”

    …/… What is the main cause of mortality on highways
    throughout the world, and certainly throughout the West?
    Contrary to what [many people] seem to believe,
    it ain’t speed (speed kills, right?).

    It is drowsiness.

    It is sleepiness.

    What causes sleepiness, or drowsiness,
    if it ain’t a sleep-inducing speed limit
    (or, rather a sleep-inducing slowness limit)?


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