Health Care and Higher Education

Research finds drowsy drivers just as bad as drunks

Holiday season offers especially bad mix of alcohol and fatigue.

December 21, 2018
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Tired driving is as dangerous as drunken driving.

“If a person who wakes up at 8 a.m. is driving at 2 a.m., they’re essentially driving with the same impairments as someone who is legally intoxicated,” said Kimberly Fenn, the director of Michigan State University’s Sleep and Learning Lab.

In 2017, drivers who were fatigued or asleep were involved in 3,428 Michigan accidents, according to the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. In 2016, they were involved in 3,277 accidents.

Sleep deprivation has a very strong effect on driving ability, Fenn said.

“When you’re tired, attention and vigilance are reduced,” she said. “When you’re driving, you need to be vigilant to (be aware of) things on the side of the road or cars stopping suddenly in front of you, and people who are tired are less likely to see those and are going to have a slower reaction time.”

People should be cautious about tired driving during the holiday season, said Dawn Massie, a research analyst for the Center for the Management of Information for Safe and Sustainable Transportation at the Transportation Research Institute.

“Given that people tend to drink more over holidays and that they tend to drive more, both long-distance trips and short trips to celebrations, I think it’s safe to say that holidays are a time to be especially vigilant about driving while fatigued,” she said.

People who have been awake for a long time experience microsleeps, which are very short episodes of sleep, Fenn said.

“As you can imagine, if you’re driving and you fall asleep, even for a very small amount of time, it can lead to very severe accidents,” she said.

Drowsy driving accidents are more likely to be fatal, she said. If drivers are asleep, they don’t make any corrective actions, resulting in more head-on collisions.

Last year, 11 people in Michigan died in crashes where there was at least one drowsy driver, according to the research institute. That number includes anyone involved in the crashes — the drowsy driver, passengers in the drowsy driver’s car, drivers and passengers of other vehicles involved in the crash and nonmotorists, such as bicyclists and pedestrians.

That number is down from 2016 when 20 people were killed in accidents involving a drowsy driver.

For 2016 and 2017, the total number of serious and minor injuries in drowsy driver accidents was 1,352.

More males than females were involved in drowsy driving accidents, according to the institute. In 2017, males identified as fatigued or asleep numbered 2,403, while 1,025 women were.

In general, men are involved in more car crashes, Massie said.

In Michigan, many of the drivers involved in drowsy driving accidents were younger, between 18 and 24.

In order to prevent drowsy driving-related accidents, the Michigan State Police suggested scheduling breaks every 100 miles or every two hours, having a passenger to talk with and share the driving, and avoiding alcohol and medications that can cause drowsiness.

Getting sleep the night before a road trip is important, but it is not enough, Fenn said.

“Most people are walking around with some amount of sleep debt, meaning that they don’t get sufficient sleep every night,” she said. “It would be ill-conceived to only think about the sleep you get the night before a trip. You should be thinking about it a week ahead of time.”

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