Sleep Awareness Week: Resolve to Improve Your Sleep and Avoid Drowsy Driving

By Dr. Jana Price

January 27, 2014, crash in Naperville, Illinois. Crash scene photo looking showing the vehicles at final rest. (Source: Illinois State Police)
January 27, 2014, crash in Naperville, Illinois. Crash scene photo looking showing the vehicles at final rest. (Source: Illinois State Police)

March 6-13, 2016, is National Sleep Awareness Week, which is a great time to think about improving our sleep habits for both our health and our safety.

Sleepiness while driving can have serious consequences. A lack of sleep slows reaction time and makes us more susceptible to forgetting or overlooking important tasks. Drowsy drivers may also experience microsleeps—brief episodes of sleep that may only last a few seconds—without being conscious that they are occurring. A few seconds is all it takes to drift out of the lane or to miss a stopped vehicle ahead.

The NTSB has investigated numerous crashes in which driver drowsiness played a role. Last month, the NTSB met to discuss a January 27, 2014, crash involving a truck-tractor semitrailer that collided with stopped vehicles that were providing assistance to a broken-down truck-tractor semitrailer in the right lane of Interstate 88 near Naperville, Illinois. As a result of the collision, an Illinois State Toll Highway Authority worker died and an Illinois State Police trooper was seriously injured in a postcrash fire. The Board concluded that the driver of the striking truck was impaired by fatigue due to his lack of adequate sleep—estimated as less than 4.5 hours in the 37 hours prior to the crash—which resulted in his delayed response to the vehicles stopped ahead of him.

On the day of the crash, and on several prior occasions, the driver had not complied with the federal rules governing hours of service and had falsified his logbook.

In the Naperville crash, the driver knew how much rest was required, but did not adhere to the rules. A recent AAA Foundation study showed that many drivers who understood the risks of drowsy driving did so nonetheless. Specifically, the AAA survey found that 97 percent of drivers see drowsy driving as a serious threat and a completely unacceptable behavior. However, among that same group, nearly 1 in 3 admitted to driving when they were so tired that they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.

Although it’s not always possible to predict when you will become drowsy behind the wheel, there are several steps you can take to help avoid this risk:

  • Get 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
  • Take rest breaks during longer drives.
  • Avoid driving during early-morning hours, when the brain is wired to be asleep.
  • Talk to your doctor if you have trouble sleeping or are sleepy during the day.
  • Check medicine labels to understand how they may affect your driving.
  • Never drive while you are drowsy; pull over to rest or change drivers at the first sign of drowsiness.

The NTSB is concerned with the issue of fatigue in all modes of transportation and has included “Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents” on its 2016 Most Wanted List of transportation safety improvements.

Jana Price, PhD, is Chief of the Report Development Branch in NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

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