Study Says Drowsy Drivers Are Involved in 17% of Fatal Crashes

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Study Says Drowsy Drivers Are Involved in 17% of Fatal Crashes


Driving while drowsy and falling asleep at the wheel are responsible for more deadly crashes than previously thought, according to a new study released on Monday.

An estimated one in six fatal crashes — nearly 17 percent — involves a drowsy driver, which is about four to five times higher than previous studies have found. And drowsy drivers are involved in one in eight crashes that result in serious injury, the report found.

“People need to be honest with themselves, be aware of the symptoms and recognize the dangers of driving while drowsy,” said Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and educational organization that conducted the study.

Being sleep-deprived decreases awareness, slows reaction time and impairs judgment, similar to the impact of drugs or alcohol, said Mr. Kissinger. “People often overestimate their ability to deal with it,” he said.

The study was based on the AAA Foundation’s 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index, a nationwide telephone survey of 2,000 residents in the United States, conducted earlier this year by Abt SRBI Inc., and new in-depth analysis of crash data from 1999 to 2008 from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database.

The report found that 41 percent of respondents admitted to falling asleep or nodding off while driving at some point in their lives. One in 10 acknowledged doing so in the past year. More than a quarter (27 percent) of those surveyed admitted that in the previous month they drove despite being so tired that they had difficulty keeping their eyes open.

“That’s just a really scary scenario,” Mr. Kissinger said.

The study is being released in support of Drowsy Driving Prevention Week (Nov. 8 to 15), sponsored by the National Sleep Foundation.

Thomas J. Balkin, a sleep researcher and chairman of the National Sleep Foundation, said sleep-related crashes were likely to be severe. People “tend to have worse crashes because they didn’t do anything to mitigate the crash,” like hitting the brakes or steering away from a collision.

Dr. Balkin said there is some suggestion that people are more sleep deprived than 30 to 40 years ago, when the average amount of sleep was about eight hours a night. Today, it is about seven hours. “People on the lower end, who get about five to six hours a night, pose a danger to themselves and others,” he said.

“People think that by rolling down the window or turning up the radio they will be able to offset drowsiness and make it to where they are going,” he said. “But they lose touch. When we’re sleepy, we know we’re sleepy, but the process of actually falling asleep, we’re not good at identifying that.”

It’s something Rusty Burris, 38, of Columbia, Mo., wished that he had paid more attention to. “When your body reaches its breaking point, you have no control over it. You’ve got to stop,” said Mr. Burris, who at age 18 fell asleep at the wheel about a mile from home after having been awake for more than 36 hours. Mr. Burris was paralyzed from the chest down when his car hit a driveway embankment and flipped over.

“It doesn’t matter how many times you do it and get away with it,” he said. “It’s that one time you don’t. You pay for it for the rest of your life.”

Tips to remain alert and identify symptoms, and the full report can be seen at
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