Drowsy Driving Might Be a Bigger Problem Than Previously Thought

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
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drowsy driving might be a bigger problem than previously thought

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

Consumer advocate tracking industry trends, regulation, and the bitter-sweet nature of modern automotive tech. Research focused and gut driven.

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  • Southern Perspective Southern Perspective on Feb 13, 2018

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

  • JimC2 JimC2 on Feb 14, 2018

    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.

  • Art_Vandelay It's not like everyone is topping their ICE vehicles off and coasting into the gas station having used every last drop of fuel either though. Most people start looking to fill up at around a 1/4 of a tank. If you constantly run the thing out of gas your fuel pump would probably be unhappy. If you running your EV to zero daily you probably bought the wrong vehicle
  • ToolGuy Imagine how exciting the automotive landscape will be once other manufacturers catch up with Subaru's horizontally-opposed engine technology.
  • FreedMike Oh, and this..."While London likes to praise its own congestion charging for reducing traffic and increasing annual revenues, tourism has declined..."The reason London's tourism numbers are down is that the city has resumed its' "tourist tax." And why did the tourist tax get reimposed? Brexit. https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/tourist-tax-cost-millions-myth-hmrc-survey-foreign-visitors-spending-uk-b1082327.html
  • Dukeisduke Eh, still a Nissan. Nope.
  • Kosmo "And, indeed, there remains a big screen atop the dash in the 2023 Nissan Z"Not the best look, but far safer while driving, when compared to lower in-dash units.Nissan blew it on so many levels with this, but I'd still enjoy one (though I'd certainly buy the Mustang instead).