Nearly every day the media showers us with the terrible images of traffic collisions caused by drunk drivers. Just as often, we hear reports of law enforcement agencies stepping up enforcement of distracted driving laws by citing drivers who speak on their cell phones while driving. Because of this attention, the general public is aware that drunk drivers and distracted drivers account for a large percentage of nation’s highway tragedies.
What many Californian’s miss however, is the very real danger associated with the fatigued or “drowsy driver.” According to a new study just released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, more than 20% of fatal traffic collisions in the United States are the direct result of fatigued drivers. That means that more than 1 in 5 fatal traffic collisions are caused by drivers who didn’t get enough sleep or who suffer with sleep apnea, or some other condition that prevents them from getting enough sleep.
Because the media focuses so much attention on the horrors of the drunk driver or the “texting” driver, not much attention is given to the potentially lethal consequences of getting behind the wheel of a car when you may fall asleep. Drunk drivers are thought of as careless criminals who willfully endanger the public by getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol. Texting drivers are thought of as thoughtless and negligent operators who ignore the law by taking their eyes off the road to fiddle with their phones. The “drowsy driver” however, can be someone as innocent as a new mother, who was up all night long with a newborn, and falls asleep while driving to work. No one would place her in the same category as a drunk driver, but she is potentially just as lethal.
The fact is, America is a land of great opportunity if you’re willing to work long hours. Juggling their lives between work, school, and family, many people find it nearly impossible to get the sleep they need to be fully rested. A driver who sleeps six to seven hours a night is twice as likely to be involved in a traffic collision as a driver who sleeps eight hours or more. The AAA study also found that for the driver who sleeps less than five hours, and then drives a car, is four-times more likely to crash than a driver who had adequate sleep. For a driver who goes twenty hours without sleep, the effects on the body are so profound that the person’s perception/reaction time is slowed to the same level as a driver with a blood/alcohol concentration of .08%. This is a real danger with potentially catastrophic consequences that is created by generally law abiding citizens who simply have their priorities screwed up.
Several states have passed laws to arrest and prosecute drowsy drivers who cause injury or death to another person, but it is a difficult case. When a person is arrested for drunk driving, evidence of impairment is often present in their blood/alcohol concentration. In cases involving a texting driver, phone records can prove the driver was using their electronic device at the time of a crash. The instant a fatigued driver crashes, however, they are wide awake and all evidence of fatigue is gone.
We are not advocating that laws be adopted to penalize a person who lives by the rules, and then suffers a sleepless night. We do suggest that drowsy driving is a true and present danger on our roadways that should be brought into the spotlight. The media and our State Legislature should spend as much time, money, and resources, on educating the public on the dangers of drowsy driving as is invested toward drunk driving and other issues.