• Dec 21, 2011
Drowsy driving, on the uptick in America, can be as dan... Drowsy driving, on the uptick in America, can be as dangerous as drunk driving (Flickr user: vmarinelli)
That snoring from your spouse may not just be annoying: Sleep apnea, a nighttime breathing disorder often indicated by snoring, is a growing epidemic that has proven to increase fatal accidents two-fold.

Recent AAA Foundation research on drowsy driving found that two out of every five drivers admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel at some point, with one in 10 claiming to have done so in the past year. And undiagnosed sleep apnea is one of the biggest causes of constant drowsiness.

"What's so alarming is that over half of these drivers reported having fallen asleep while driving on high‐speed roads," said Jake Nelson, AAA's Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research.

Some studies suggest drowsy driving can be almost as dangerous as drunk driving. Some auto manufacturers are taking this seriously, installing drowsy driving alert systems on their vehicles that prompt drivers to stop and get coffee or take a break.

According to the National Sleep Foundation's 2002 "Sleep in America" poll, some 100 million people (about half of all adult drivers in the U.S.) say they've operated a vehicle in the past year while feeling drowsy. About 32 million have actually fallen asleep at the wheel, and two million people have had an accident because they dozed off or were too tired to drive.

According to the 2006 Farmers survey, almost three times as many men as women said they had fallen asleep while driving. Those aged 55 to 64 had the highest percentage of any age group surveyed. Even though 53.4 claimed they kept driving.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that approximately 100,000 police-reported crashes annually involve drowsiness or fatigue as a main cause. Those crashes result in an estimated 1,500 fatalities and 71,000 injuries each year and an annual loss of approximately $12.5 billion.

But this wreckage often treads quietly. Loretta Worters, vice president of the Insurance Information Institute, says drowsiness "is often referred to as the silent killer, because it is so often overlooked as the cause of an accident."

Unfortunately, with no laws explicitly against drowsy driving, or BAC-equivalent tests for fatigue, much of the management for drowsy driving remains self-regulated.

The Consequences

Americans are impoverished sleep-wise, and the growing incidence of sleep apnea exacerbates that trend. Currently, 18 million adult Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and on average those with the disorder get only 6.4 hours of shut-eye a night compared to the 6.8-hour mean.

Undiagnosed or uncared for sleep apnea causes a person to be constantly tired, which impairs reflexes, judgment and concentration much like drugs or alcohol -- all the more dangerous behind the wheel.

A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine can help a person who has obstructive sleep apnea breathe more easily, sleep better, and possibly become a safer driver.

"Although the vast majority of drivers recognize the serious threat of drowsy driving, a 'Do as I Say, Not as I Do' attitude exists when getting behind the wheel," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of AAA Foundation. "Drivers have a tendency to underestimate the impact being tired has on their driving ability, which puts themselves and others at risk."

The Effect On The Car Market

Strategy Analytics is forecasting a significant rise in the number of vehicles fitted with driver drowsiness detection systems. They expect about 11 million cars will have this technology in 2018.

Mercedes offers a technology they call Distronic, which uses a variety of vehicle sensors to determine if the driver is starting to weave a little more in his or her lane. Sensor-based systems are much cheaper than systems that use cameras to monitor eyes for drowsiness, like the system offered by Lexus.

"The biggest challenge for vehicle makers is knowing what to do with the information once they have detected a drowsy driver," said Ian Riches, Direct of Global Automotive Practice at Strategy Analytics. "Clearly, if the driver is drowsy, the safest thing to do is to get the driver to stop as soon as possible."

Automakers worry that if their systems allow drowsy drivers to stay behind the wheel, the automakers may be held liable for any accidents the driver causes.



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