The issue of drowsy driving is again top of mind, with the release of more studies that claim people driving while sleep deprived are as dangerous on the road as those who drive after drinking.
The latest study from the U.S.’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claims that many still look at drowsy driving as falling asleep at the wheel, when the impairment of sleep deprivation has the same effect as driving drunk or drugged — lack of focus, the ability to misjudge danger, indecisiveness and the reduction in reaction time, among others.
The study says the effects start manifesting themselves if the driver sleeps less than six hours for several days in a row, or after one night with very little sleep or none at all. And like drunk driving, there are demographic and ambient trends.
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), crashes related to drowsy driving are most likely to happen late in the evening, in pre-dawn hours and middle of the afternoon, and those most likely to succumb to it are in the 16-24 age bracket (nearly twice as much as drivers aged 40-59). There are no significant patterns when it comes to race and ethnicity, sex, age, income level, education, and employment status.
And although it can’t be easily pinned down, NHTSA estimates that between 2% and 20% of all crashes can be attributed to drowsiness, an annual average of 72,000 crashes resulting in more than 41,000 injuries and 800 deaths. In a 2002 NHTSA/Gallup poll, roughly 37% of drivers said they had fallen asleep at the wheel, and 95% said that drowsy drivers were a threat to the safety of other road-users.
Further, AAA’s 2014 Traffic Safety Culture Index said that 29% of polled drivers in the past 30 days had driven so drowsy they could hardly keep their eyes open, 19.8% had done it more than once, and 2.4% reported doing it fairly often.
Dealing with the problem takes various approaches — there is the education of drivers to have them not drive in a sleep deprived state, but some of the problems can be attributed to medical conditions such as sleep apnea; there are strategies to combat drowsiness while driving, such as pulling over to a safe area and having a 20 minute nap, having a cup of coffee and waiting 30 minutes for the caffeine to have its effect, or just getting out of the car and walking around for about 20 minutes; and the other strategy is to have external influences.
Among the examples of the latter is driver alert technology being fitted to some cars, such as Mercedes-Benz models. The system scans the driver’s face and head position for tell-tale signs of fatigue and sounds an audible warning if it senses the driver may be dozing off. Other manufacturers have similar systems in their high-end cars and it is expected that the technology may work down to less expensive models as the problem steps more into the spotlight.
There is also an aftermarket system heading into production called Vigo, which is similar to a Bluetooth headset but instead monitors the driver’s eye, as well as head movement, for early signs of drowsiness. It is linked up to a mobile app on a Smartphone and when it senses the driver is falling asleep, will react with an audible warning, a flashing LED or a vibration, or any combination of the three.