By on February 9, 2018

tired driver woman yawning

Back in 2014, an American Automobile Association study estimated that tired motorists were responsible for around 328,000 accidents annually — 6,400 of which were fatal. However, unlike drunk driving, there’s no sound metric for assessing the true scope of the problem. Getting tired is something that just sort of happens. People don’t stay out all night not sleeping because it’s fun, the police can’t test for it, and almost nobody is going to say they were dozing off behind the wheel in an accident report — either because they are too embarrassed or stopped feeling tired at the moment of their brush with death.

That makes the issue a bit of a phantom menace. We all know it’s a problem, but the frequency remains debatable. Fortunately, a new study released by AAA this week helps clear things up. Researchers affixed dashboard cameras to 3,593 vehicles in order to monitor the drivers’ faces, then used a PERCLOS-based fatigue monitoring strategy to come to the conclusion that drowsiness is a contributing factor in 10.6 to 10.8 percent of all accidents resulting in significant property damage, airbag deployment, or injury.

Considering that the sample group knew they were being monitored and likely aimed to be on their best behavior, that’s a substantial number. Earlier estimates surmised that as much as 20 percent of all vehicular deaths could be attributed to drowsiness, but lacked case studies to back the claim.

But, in the new study, drivers who qualified as “drowsy” had to exhibit clear signs of tiredness during the final three minutes of video preceding each crash. That translates into closed eyelids in at least 12 percent of the recorded footage leading up to the accident.

Also alarming is the number of times the test sample members became involved in on-road incidents.

The participants were part of the federally funded Second Strategic Highway Research Program Naturalistic Driving Study, which collected general data in the hopes of improving highway safety, minimizing congestion, and solving infrastructure issues. The study recorded 905 severe, moderate, and minor crashes between October 2010 and December 2013. While “minor crashes” didn’t always involve damage to the vehicle, they did include things like flying off the road or unintended contact with another object. Another 628 incidents occurred but were not counted as part of the AAA’s drowsiness research. Those included things like clipping curb with ones tires and low-speed parking mishaps.

The final tally put tired drivers behind the wheel of 8.8 to 9.5 percent of all crashes and 10.6 to 10.8 percent of crashes of any accident categorized as moderate to severe. That number could be higher too, as AAA negated any incidents where the driver’s face was not clearly visible (due to poor lighting, sunglasses, camera issues, etc) for at least 75 percent of the time.

That doesn’t mesh with research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published three years ago, which attributed 2.5 percent of all fatal crashes to fatigued driving. Safety experts have long regarded such statistics, derived primarily from police reports based on post-crash investigations, as a gross underestimation of the problem’s scope.

“Drowsy driving is a bigger traffic safety issue than federal estimates show,” said Dr. David Yang, executive director for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Drivers who don’t get enough sleep are putting everyone on the road at risk. By conducting an in-depth analysis using video of everyday drivers, we can now better assess if a driver was fatigued in the moments leading up to a crash.”

Alright, so it’s bigger problem than we originally thought. But the solution remains the same — try and get more rest. Easier said than done, I know. As someone who frequently does extended overnight drives, I can attest to drowsiness sneaking up on you. However, when it does, I have no qualms with pulling off into a rest area and catching 20 minutes of sleep. Unfortunately, we’ve already discussed how a number of states have closed a significant portion of their highway rest stops and many people’s unwillingness to use them. Yet a survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic discovered three in 10 drivers were willing to admit to operating a motor vehicle while being so tired they could barely keep their eyes open.

“As many Americans struggle to balance their busy schedules, missing a few hours of sleep each day can often seem harmless,” said Jake Nelson, director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research for AAA. “But missing just two to three hours of sleep can more than quadruple your risk for a crash, which is the equivalent of driving drunk.”

The government knows this is an issue. The Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center has suggested a slew of fixes — everything from educating new drivers about the dangers of sleep deprivation to placing the burden on employers who may be asking too much of their employees, and even ridiculous assertions like making being tired illegal. However, while the government has taken an interested, it doesn’t appear to recognize the severity. Over the past few years, the feds have suggested additional research to determining the best ways of solving the issue.

“At the end of the day, we can have education programs, rules, and technology to mitigate drowsy driving, but if people aren’t buying in and making the decision to get enough sleep, the countermeasures won’t work,” said Stephen Popkin, Volpe’s deputy director for Research and Technology, in a National Transportation Safety Board discussion from 2015.

With the exception of placing a majority of the burden on advanced technologies like autonomous driving (which remains years away), the government’s thoughts on finding a solution haven’t changed much since then.

[Image: United States Department of Transportation]

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25 Comments on “Drowsy Driving Might Be a Bigger Problem Than Previously Thought...”

  • avatar

    Refundable tax credit on new mattress purchases.

  • avatar

    Yay another stock photo!

    Are we going to get to run this one into the ground?

  • avatar

    Where are the “energy drink” pop-up ads?

    Come on ttac, get your marketing dude going!

  • avatar

    The inactivity of sitting in a car may signal the body to rest. Pederstrians and cyclists rarely fall asleep.

    What is the effectiveness of lane departure warning and lane keeping systems in the context of drowsy driving? And don’t some cars have some sort of facial monitoring system that recognizes a drowsy driver?

    • 0 avatar

      As long as you keep your hands on the wheel, the ones that vibrate the wheel might be interesting at keeping awake.

    • 0 avatar

      I believe that part of the problem is the fact that cars have become too easy to operate coupled with the fact that they are perceived to be safe. The safer the driver feels the more relaxed they will become and will be more likely to take risks. This is know as the Peltzman Effect.
      Humans are notoriously poor judges of risk and over-rate their driving skills. Statistically 1/3 of drivers should not have a licence but the majority of drivers feel they are good to excellent.

  • avatar

    They should bring back Burma-Shave signs, motorists wouldn’t want to nod off and miss the punchline.

  • avatar

    “unintended contact with another object”

    What would be intended contact with another object?

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    I find it odd that as adults we know when we are tired and yet most of us ignore the signs and push on.

    Maybe be organisation of work would help, or look at what you need to do in your life.

    We can’t do all and as the article states driving when tired can have bad consequences.

    Here in Australia there has been a spate of tragic accidents involving heavy trucks.

    Fatigue at work is not tolerated and where I work as managers we must keep an eye on our people. Maybe looking after each other a little better would help, like taking the keys off a drunk driver, maybe we should use that approach for fatigued friends and collegues.

    • 0 avatar

      There are a few reasons for carrying on rather than pulling off to rest.

      If you have passengers who can’t or won’t drive, they probably won’t let you sleep either. They may object to the delay (despite their safety being at risk).

      In the US, there may be no safe place to stop. You may be in traffic jams. There may be no place to pull off at all, let alone one quiet enough to sleep. You may find a suitable place and then be unable to sleep.

      My pet peeve about this is that freeway exit signs should have simple graphics of the layout of the intersection so you know whether you can get back on the highway or not.

      When I pull off I put the seat back, close my eyes, relax and sort of encourage nonsensical imagery. I know after I’ve achieved that, and it takes only a few minutes. Then I take a walk around the car and continue.

      But there’s no cure better than getting enough sleep.

    • 0 avatar

      Some of us just can’t sleep in a semi-upright position, even when we’re tired. I had a 23 hour flight some years back, took an Ambien, and couldn’t string together more than a few minutes of sleep the entire way. Flying makes me drowsy too, but I still can’t sleep

  • avatar

    This has been well known for generations. That’s why we have rumble strips on the side of the road and when you approach stop signs on remote roads since before most of us were born. Sometimes the government does know best.

    The estimates seem low. Very low. I suppose it could partially be attributed to modern distractions sucking up some of the blame for accidents.

  • avatar

    The last time I got in a car accident – I was at fault – I had three nights of crappy sleep, the last night my son was up most of the time since he was sick.

    Well I had a work meeting that I just had to get to, so instead of working from home, I ventured out in my car. Big mistake that gave me a ticket and a bump in my insurance.

  • avatar

    The last two times I drove from Sarasota to Cleveland, I did it in one pull.

    I hate stopping.

    On the way back, when I got past Orlando, I legitimately didn’t know if I was going to make it home alive.

    Woke up closing on a semi’s tailgate with a 30 mph speed differential on I-4 east of Tampa.

    As Maxwell Smart used to say, “Missed it by THAT MUCH!”

    If you don’t want me doing that, let me drive fast enough to make the trip in eight hours rather than 16.

  • avatar

    Often, I’ll get up at 5 AM, drive 3 hours from Albuquerque to Taos to go skiing, ski my ass off all day, and then drive 3 hours back home in the dark. I’ve had some close calls being tired, so got a few Ritalin for the drives home which helps a lot. I’m FAR more dangerous than I am at a little over .08 BAC.

    This kind of driving is why my new car has lane keeping assist, adaptive cruise and collision mitigation braking.

  • avatar

    New years day 2016 is a day my wife and I won’t ever forget. We were on a rural 2 lane highway in my 94 Silverado running the speed limit of 55 mph. I noticed a Ford Ranger pickup approaching that was beginning to drift over the center line. As we got closer the driver did not correct. Soon he was upon us and totally in my lane. I jerked the wheel and jumped a ditch landing in someone’s front yard. At that point I got on the brakes and was able to stop after hitting a telephone junction box.

    My wife was looking behind and saw the Ranger continue off the side of the road, hitting a mailbox and crashing into some trees. We jumped out and ran to check on the other driver. It was an older man and he was already getting out of his truck. The first thing he said to us was “I fell asleep” and then “I shouldn’t even be driving, I have sleep apnea” He then told us he had fallen asleep a few miles up the road but woke up and decided he could make it the rest of the way home.

    When the highway patrol arrived, he told him the same story.

  • avatar
    Southern Perspective

    I sometimes get drowsy on long drives so I carry a can of Red Bull for when that happens. It works.

  • avatar

    The thing I like about doing long drives at night is there’s less traffic- especially people holding up the left lane by driving slowly, with their brain disengaged (aka sleeping with their eyes open). The statistics say it’s a more dangerous time to drive but you can indeed get there quicker.

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