Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
Motorists ages 16 to 24 are more likely to drive while drowsy: One in seven licensed drivers in that age group admit to having nodded off behind the wheel at least once in the past year, says a new survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
Overall, one in 10 drivers acknowledged nodding off while driving.
Less-experienced drivers tend to underestimate the risks of drowsy driving and overestimate their ability to deal with problems from the practice, says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of AAA Foundation.
"That's a deadly combination," he says. "When most drivers think they're too tired to drive, they should probably already be off the street."
He compares the situation to someone sitting down to watch a favorite television show when they're more tired than they realize. "You wake up, and it's the end of the show, and you think, 'What happened?' It's not like I meant to fall asleep."
Drowsy driving is a factor in an estimated one in six fatal crashes in the USA and one in eight crashes resulting in hospitalization, according to AAA Foundation.
"I don't think there has been enough focus on drowsy driving as an issue," Kissinger says. "I describe it as the largest unrecognized traffic-safety problem in the country."
Two things helping to address the problem: Many states now install rumble strips along the edges and in the medians of roadways. The strips are designed to alert drivers when their tires bump across them. And automakers are developing technology to determine when a driver is falling asleep or being inattentive.
Alex Noel, now 21, was 17 when he dozed off and swerved off the highway in the fall of 2008. "It was my senior year of high school, and I was applying to colleges, working and playing football, and I was way too tired," he says. "I was driving home from a homecoming dance, about one hour from my house."
"I was dozing off the whole way, but I didn't think I would fall fully asleep," says Noel, a welder who lives near Boston. "I was trapped for three hours before anyone realized I was there. I could only move my right arm and my right leg just a little bit. The seat belt saved my life."
Noel suffered a broken shoulder, bruised lungs, a concussion, facial cuts and nerve damage. He says he now warns people to pull over, turn their flashers on and close their eyes for 10-15 minutes when they feel sleepy. "You should do it as soon as you start feeling like your eyes are closing, because it will come on without your knowing," he says.
The AAA Foundation's July survey of 3,896 licensed drivers ages 16 and up has a margin of error of +/- 2.2 percentage points.
DROWSY DRIVING WARNING SIGNS
- These signs can indicate that drivers should find a safe place to pull over:
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking and/or heavy eyelids.
- Difficulty keeping reveries or daydreams at bay.
- Trouble keeping your head up.
- Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating and/or hitting rumble strips.
- Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven.
- Missing exits or traffic signs.
- Yawning repeatedly.
- Feeling restless, irritable, aggressive.
- Preventing a drowsy driving crash
- Get a good night's sleep before hitting the road.
- Don't be in too big a hurry to arrive at your destination.
- Use the buddy system. Avoid driving alone for long distances; have a buddy who remains awake to take turns driving and to spot signs of drowsiness.
- Take a break every 100 miles or every two hours.
- Pull over and take a 15-20 minute nap if you think you'll fall asleep.
- Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness.
- Avoid driving during times when you would normally be asleep.
- Consume caffeine. The equivalent of two cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hours.
Source: National Sleep Foundation