Drowsy driving plays a role in nearly eight times as many accidents as federal estimates suggest, according to a study released Thursday.
Using in-vehicle camera footage of thousands of drivers who had agreed to participate in the study, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that motorists are falling asleep at the wheel at alarming rates.
The AAA study examined more than 700 crashes, analyzing three minutes of video of drivers’ faces leading up to the accidents. They used a scientific gauge to determine whether the driver was sleepy.
In about 9.5 percent of crashes, drowsiness was a factor. And it was a key factor in 10.8 percent of accidents that caused serious property damage.
The finding differs with the result of investigations by federal researchers, who believe sleepiness is a cause in a far smaller percentage of crashes in the U.S.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had reported in 2017 that driver drowsiness was involved in 1.4 percent of all police-reported crashes, 2 percent of crashes resulting in injuries and 2.4 percent that resulted in death from 2011 to 2015.
The primary reason for the disparity between government statistics and the AAA is study is likely that it’s extremely difficult for law enforcement officials to determine when drowsiness was a factor unless the driver admits it.
Given the percentages, drowsy driving may have accounted for several thousand of the more than 37,000 American roadway deaths in 2016, said William Horrey, group leader of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s Traffic Research Group. That’s the latest year for which figures are available.
The AAA Foundation recommends sleeping at least seven hours a night before driving.
But about 35 percent of U.S. drivers sleep less than that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Getting just four or five hours can more than quadruple the risk of an accident, according to AAA.
“Really the only effective countermeasure for drowsiness is sleep, so we want to encourage people to really try to prioritize and allocate enough time to get a good night’s rest,” Horrey said.
You know you shouldn’t be behind the wheel if you’re having trouble keeping your eyes open, drifting from your lane or having difficulty recalling the last several miles.
Slapping yourself to stay awake? That won’t work. Neither will drinking caffeine or rolling down the windows.
Those are temporary measures that fade fast, experts said.
In addition to getting enough sleep, it’s best to avoid driving at times you’d normally be sleeping. And drivers should certainly avoid medications that cause drowsiness. They should also schedule breaks.
A short nap at a rest stop can make a big difference.
“We really don’t want to be relying on our bodies to tell us that we’re fatigued,” Horrey said. “We really want to be aware and avoid it in the first place.”
Warne said another good step is to turn off digital devices at least an hour before bed to ensure a good night’s rest.
She said the federal government needs to take drowsy driving more seriously by investing heavily in public education.
The AAA report was based on footage from the federally funded Second Strategic Highway Research Program’s Naturalistic Driving Study, which involved monitoring 3,593 drivers from six locations for several months.