• Nov 23rd 2010 at 12:00AM
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Can driving drowsy be just as dangerous as driving drun... Can driving drowsy be just as dangerous as driving drunk? (Getty Images)

Drowsy drivers don't attract as much public opprobrium as drunk or distracted drivers, but maybe they should.

According to a newly released survey of 2,000 motorists by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 41 percent of drivers admitted they had "fallen asleep or nodded off" while driving at least once. Eleven percent said they had done so within the past year, and four percent said they had fallen asleep behind the wheel in the previous month.

Moreover, one in four motorists admitted they had driven when they were "so sleepy that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open" within the past month.

Given the mushy nature of the data, it's hard to make accurate estimates of the number of accidents caused by fatigue. After all, haven't all of us nodded off at one time or another?

Nevertheless, AAA's researchers concluded that as many as 16 percent of all fatal crashes involved a drowsy motorist – a much higher estimate than earlier studies which attributed less than four percent of fatal accidents to fatigue.

"Researchers have always thought that drowsy driving is under-reported, and that's what this study found," said AAA spokesman Dan Bleier. "We know that it's a problem, and people need to pay attention to it."

There were some other interesting findings: Men are much more likely than women to drive while fatigued, and motorists between the ages of 16 and 24 also are high risks. Though most of us would associate drowsy driving with long overnight trips, a substantial number of incidents occurred during short trips in the afternoon.

Ten Dead, Five Hurt

If AAA is correct, drowsy motorists are almost as dangerous as drunk drivers, who caused one third of all fatal accidents last year.

A particularly horrific example of drowsy driving surfaced in September, when the National Transportation Safety Board released its investigation of a crash that killed 10 people on a highway near Miami, Oklahoma.

On the afternoon of June 26, 2009, a Ford Focus headed east on Interstate 44 sideswiped a tractor-trailer parked on the right shoulder. The driver lost control, hit the concrete median and came to a halt in the left lane. No injuries so far, but the fender bender tied up traffic.

Six minutes later, a 76-year-old trucker driving a Volvo tractor-trailer failed to notice that the cars ahead of him had stopped. He never slowed and he never swerved. Going 69 mph, his truck slammed into the rear of a Land Rover, rode over a Hyundai Sonata and a Kia Spectra, then smashed into a Ford Windstar minivan. The out-of-control rig shoved the Windstar into a livestock trailer towed by a Ford pickup, which in turn hit a Chevy Tahoe. The final toll: 10 dead, and five injured.

Investigators concluded that the truck driver suffered from acute fatigue.

The report also recommended that all new commercial trucks be equipped with collision warning systems. Such a device "would have significantly reduced the likelihood that this accident could ever have happened," said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman.

One might logically ask whether drowsiness detection systems should also be mandated for vehicles. Wouldn't it make sense to detect dangerous behavior before an accident is imminent?

"Time For A Rest?"

Indeed, several automakers have tinkered with such devices. For example, Mercedes-Benz has developed a system called Attention Assist, which is standard equipment on E-Class, CL-Class and some S-Class sedans.

If the system's sensor detects erratic steering, an audible warning sounds and the instrument panel flashes the message: "Time for a rest?" Such initiatives "give the driver feedback to wake up and get off the road safely," says Justin McMaull, AAA's director of state relations.

But somehow, it doesn't seem plausible to expect exhausted motorists will pull over simply because the dashboard is flashing an icon of a coffee cup. Behaviorists might argue that motorists won't change their behavior unless they can be punished for it.

That approach is getting a test in New Jersey, which passed a law banning drowsy driving in 2003. Jersey motorists involved in a traffic accident are considered to be "knowingly fatigued" if they've been awake more than 24 hours. Maximum penalties include a 10-year prison sentence and a $100,000 fine.

But drowsy motorists are harder to identify than drunk drivers. You can't give a motorist a Breathalyzer test for fatigue, McMaull notes. It's hard to prove in court, which may be why no other state has followed New Jersey's lead.

Still, McMaull says the law isn't useless. "The idea is to send a message to motorists," he says. "And prosecutors can use it as a legal tool after a serious crash."

Is the problem getting worse? It isn't clear. This is AAA's first survey of drowsy drivers -- perhaps subsequent studies will reveal a trend.

In the meantime, motorists should use some common sense:

1. If you're on a long trip, pull over for a break every couple of hours.
2. Have some coffee; it will perk you up for awhile.
3. A companion in the car can keep you awake and share driving chores.
4. Break up long trips with an overnight motel stop. Don't attempt an all-night drive.
5. Stay away from alcohol. A fatigued motorist on booze is double trouble.

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      • 7 Months Ago
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      • 7 Months Ago
      This is an attempt by convicted drunk drivers who, Have alot of money Feel entitled to self rightousness Do not feel they should be held accountable for their actions Want to argue that there are worst dangers than themselves Resolve their guilt issues and sift blame to others Nice try but WE, the silent ones(yea, you know who we are)KNOW and you can not hide behind smoke and mirrors anymore. But for all the wrong reasons, the message is correct ! Be careful and considerate if you drive !
      • 7 Months Ago
      To planxan2: I would ask you since you think fines and other deterrents are infective what would you propose to reduce the needless deaths of innocent people at the hands of those who choose to eliminate them by their choice to be stupid? The woman who killed my son was senteced to 30 months in jail because she was 3 times the legal limit. To this day she still says it was his fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (He was on his way home from college to pick up his 1 year old son).
      Henry Kipp
      • 7 Months Ago
      I have experienced intermittant drowsiness while driving for some years. The feeling may begin after I have been behind the wheel for as little as a half hour or after having driven for several hours or sometimes not at all. Fortunately, I can feel the drowsiness coming on; and know that after the first yawn I have perhaps 5 minutes remaining during which I have adequate control. If a rest stop is nearby, I use it to take a brief nap. In the absence of a rest stop, I pull over onto the shoulder of a highway or into a parking lot. After a nap of 15 to 30 minutes, I feel completely refreshed and alert. On several occasions a patrol car has stopped behind my car and an officer asked if everything was all right. After hearing my explanation, I have been told that I had done the right thing. It works for me!
      • 7 Months Ago
      diabetic is the correct spelling
      • 7 Months Ago
      I make a very nice living as an accident investigator. Any thing which takes a mind off safe driving is an unsafe practice. This could be music set at stun level. It could be answering of dialing a cell phone. Certainly texting on a devise is not the best. I love my coffee, but to pick up my travel cup and not spill my eyes leave the roadway. The same thing happens to those who eat and drive. The unsafe events I have investigated include a woman taking curlers out of her hair as she drove to work one morning. The children in the car she hit all survived. The man using his electric razor to shave as he ran a red light was not as lucky. Drive drozy and there are consequences, most of which are not pleasant for you or someone else. I may be the only one who benefits by the driving habits in this Country.
      • 7 Months Ago
      I agree with this, here in Florida the state goverment makes the problem worse because they close many of the rest areas at night when they are needed the most. The also have signs posted prohibiting people from sleeping so what what is a person to do. The state government should build more rest areas on the public highways and not just on the interstates and they should be open 24/7 to promote public safety.
      • 7 Months Ago
      Take the Sleepy Heads , The Madd Mothers Distracted by a suv full of screaming offspring , The females preoccupied with mirror gazing and makeup applying ,mst of all the drivers distracted by anything to do with a cellphone...................an you will find the accidents caused by these things are ten time the amount caused by the simple drunk driver. but the drunk is our only villan because they are the only ones who have lingering evidence of their mindlessness.
      • 7 Months Ago
      I have fallen asleep twice, in the same place. It was at noon time. The first time I swerved into the wrong lane, woke up and quickly returned to the correct lane. The second time i hit a street stanchion which broke my right hand mirror, which hit my car window and woke me up. Again no harm to anyone else, thankfully. I now chew gum when I drive and do not drive for long periods of time. I would never drink and drive...
      • 7 Months Ago
      I think it's funny. When you're a truck driver, you can talk to the same person and they will tell you two separate things. When you're in front of them, you're driving too slow, and when you're in back of them, they will say that you're driving too fast. I just want these kind of people to consider what they had for dinner tonight. Chances are, it's something that you didn't grow in your backyard. That said, you must've gotten it from a grocery store. The grocery store that you got your food from **************** else, since they don't grow things in their backyard, either. That food came from a grower or a processing plant, possibly in the next state. Did they send their store employees to get it? Nope. They called for a delivery, and that delivery arrived on the same truck that you cut off on the highway, and the driver that put that load on the dock was the same one that you gave the bird and yelled curse words at through the window of your fifty thousand dollar BMW. If it weren't for that truck driver, you woudn't have eaten tonight.
      • 7 Months Ago
      All night is the best time to drive. Less traffic and it isn't as hot outside. Then again, I'm a night owl and am used to pulling those hours.
      • 7 Months Ago
      I also wonder how many are caused by texting and other cell phone use.
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