Driving Drowsy vs. Driving Drunk: the Fatal Mistake Most People Make

We all know that drinking and driving is dangerous and illegal… but did you know that driving sleepy is just as dangerous as driving drunk? 

Not only do car accidents pose a serious threat for people with chronic sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, but anyone who gets behind a wheel with less than optimal rest could be putting themselves in danger. With a majority of the population admitting to driving while exhausted, that threat of drowsy driving is real.

The Dangers of Driving Sleep-Deprived

Driving while sleepy is a widespread problem. According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll, 60% of adults admit to drowsy driving in the past year. A poll conducted by the AAA Foundation found that one in three admitted to driving drowsy in the past month. And shockingly, 37% of people confessed that they had actually dozed off at the wheel.

These statistics are of serious concern because it is well-proven that exhausted driving causes accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported crashes and 1550 deaths each year are the result of sleep-deprived drivers. However, these numbers are conservative because there is no definitive test to assess a driver’s sleepiness and crash-reporting in the United States is inconsistent. In European countries with more uniform records, drowsy driving accounts for 10 to 30% of all crashes. 

Furthermore, studies have found a clear inverse correlation between hours spent sleeping and likeliness of a motor accident. People who sleep even a moderate six to seven hours per night are twice as likely to crash as those who sleep the recommended eight hours a night. Thus, even moderate sleep deprivation can put a person at significant risk.

Drunkenness vs. Drowsiness

It’s pretty clear that nodding off at the wheel is dangerous. But is it really as dangerous as driving under the influence? The answer is resoundingly yes. Drowsiness leads to slower reaction times, and impaired attention, mental processing, judgment, and decision making. Drowsiness can occur from accumulating sleep debt (typically less than 6 hours of sleep per night or less) over multiple nights or from only one night of poor sleep.

A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine that surveyed hospitalized participants in automobile accidents found that drunk driving and driving while fatigued were equally risky. Both doubled the chance of being in an accident. 

Furthermore, an Australian study correlated sleep deprivation with blood alcohol content (BAC) in terms of how likely they were to result in a collision. Staying awake for 18 hours corresponds to a BAC of .05; maintaining wakefulness for a full 24 hours equates to a BAC of .10, which is over the legal limit of .08.

Driving with a Sleep Disorder

People who are chronically tired, such as shift workers or those with a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, run a constant risk while navigating the road. In fact, people with sleep apnea are 5 times more likely than healthy individuals to be involved in an auto accident, according to a study conducted at the University of British Colombia in Vancouver. Alan Mulgrew, MD, part of the team who conducted the above study, commented, “When we looked at the small number of truly awful crashes — head-on collisions and collisions with pedestrians or cyclists — 80% of the crashes of that kind were in sleep apnea patients.”

People with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have trouble breathing at night, which prevents them from getting a good night’s sleep and leads to fatigue andexcessive daytime sleepiness.

Is Driving Drowsy Against the Law?

In some cases, yes. For instance, in New Jersey, a driver that has been awake for 24 hours is considered reckless under the same classification as a drunk driver. Other states have laws in place or have bills pending to punish negligently drowsy drivers. Here is a full summary of state drowsy driving laws.

Some Professions Require Testing For Sleep Apnea

Businesses and associations have also attempted to reduce accidents related to exhaustion, especially in occupations that involve driving or operating machinery. There is discussion about screening truck drivers and firefighters for sleep apnea. Most recently, the Metro North rail line in New York has decided to test its engineers for sleep disorders after the revelation that a driver’s sleep apnea contributed to a fatal train crash in December 2013.

A study by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the American Transportation Research Institute of American Tricking Associations fount that almost one-third or 28% of commercial truck drivers have mild to severe sleep apnea. Public Law #113-45, aka the “sleep apnea bill” of 2014, requires that the formal rule-making process be followed regarding sleep apnea screening, testing, and treatment of truckers and other commercial motor vehicle operators and forbids the issuing of any informal guidance on this subject. It’s still a bit confusing who is responsible for ensuring processes are followed to keep sleep drivers off the roads, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires that pilots are examined and screened for the risk of obstructive sleep apnea. Let’s keep the skies safe too!

How Can We Reduce Drowsy Driving?

As individuals, we must take personal steps to ensure that we protect our own health and safety and that of other people on the roads. Here are some things you can do to avoid drinking while impaired.

  • If you notice that you’re sleepy, have a quick nap before driving. Even a power nap of 20-30 minutes can make a big difference in your energy and alertness.
  • Have a friend drive you or use public transportation as an alternative.
  • Try to schedule your commute so that you are not driving when you are typically sleepy, such as right when you wake up or very late at night.
  • If you are chronically tired, have a sleep study to rule out sleep disorders.
  • If you have sleep apnea, make sure you are using a CPAP machine faithfully! It will eliminate your symptoms of sleep apnea and has been proven to lower your risk of getting in an accident.
  • Make sure that you’re getting enough sleep! We can’t emphasize this enough. Sleep is a vital component of your driving routine, not to mention your overall health.

From the 2016 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Drowsy Driving Research and Program Plan:

Sleepiness is an inescapable biological phenomenon that has drastic effects on the mind and body. Whether sleepiness is caused by sleep restriction due to a baby crying all night, a late shift at work, a teenager staying up all night with friends, health issues such as sleep apnea and medications, or our natural circadian rhythm – the negative outcomes can be the same. Most importantly, the longer someone remains awake, the more probable the negative outcomes become. Sleepiness, without fail, results in cognitive and behavioral changes that can contribute to diverse negative outcomes including automobile crashes, poor school performance, accidents at work, and other long-term physical and mental health consequences. NHTSA is concerned with this issue and is working with a number of other Federal agencies, including other U.S. Department of Transportation agencies, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes for Health (NIH), toward eliminating drowsy driving.

Recently the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) declared that reducing fatigue-related accidents was one of its most wanted transportation safety improvements for 2016.

If you’ve dozed off behind the wheel, it’s time to evaluate your sleep habits. Not only are you hurting your health, but you may be risking the lives of others. Talk to your doctor and find out if a sleep disorder may be affecting your sleep.

Take the sleepiness quiz



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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2015 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Comments posted previously on the Sleep Better Blog:
5/5/2016, 11:01:46 PM

Stop driving if you feel sleepy. Stop and drink a caffeinated beverage. Avoid driving at so-called sleepy times of day. Take a midafternoon break for a short nap and find a place to sleep between midnight and dawn. If you can’t nap, at least stop your drive and rest for awhile.

5/20/2016, 3:18:35 PM

Those are great points! Let’s make the roads safe for everyone.

Anne Malatt

6/3/2016, 12:35:35 PM

Thank you for this great blog. It is such an important topic to raise awareness of. What no-one is yet talking about is why we are all so exhausted and falling asleep. Why are we all so tired? It is not just those with sleep apnea, who are the extreme end of the spectrum, but as a society we are relying more and more on artificial stimulants such as coffee and sugar to get us through the day, and so when they wear off, we can fall into a sleepy slump. But why do we need them in the first place? Why are we having trouble sleeping and feeling tired as a consequence? Could it be something to do with the way we are living? http://www.unimedliving.com is a great website which offers true answers to these questions.

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