Driving Dangerously by Driving Drowsy

From the WebMD Archives

May 2, 2000 -- Thanks to all of the hard work by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and others, most of us are aware of the hazards of drunken driving. However, few of us are aware that driving while drowsy can be just as -- if not more -- dangerous. But individual efforts and statewide awareness campaigns are helping to educate drivers about the importance of adequate sleep and the dangers of drowsy driving.

About half of U.S. adults admit to driving while drowsy, and 17% have actually fallen asleep at the wheel, according to a recent poll by the National Sleep Foundation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at least 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths each year in this country are the result of a driver falling asleep at the wheel. And that's not all. About one million crashes each year occur as a result of driver inattention or lapses of attention, and sleeplessness increases the risk of such lapses. Still, experts tell WebMD that drowsy driving accidents may even be underreported because police officers do not routinely ask about sleepiness at crash sites.

Drowsy drivers are more likely to crash than well-rested drivers because they have slower reaction times; impaired judgment and vision; and pay less attention to important signs, road changes, and actions of other drivers.

Four populations are especially hard hit by drowsy driving, Thomas Roth, PhD, head of the division of sleep medicine at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, tells WebMD. "Drowsy driving is a significant problem in a variety of groups -- young people, especially males age 18 to 25, because they don't tend to get enough sleep; shift workers; people with untreated sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and narcolepsy; and commercial drivers, because they are on the road so much," Roth says.

People with sleep apnea -- a serious sleep disorder marked by snoring, pauses in breathing during sleep, and struggling to breathe during sleep -- are three to seven times more likely to crash as people without the disorder. Narcolepsy is characterized by excessive and overwhelming drowsiness. People with the condition tend to fall asleep at inappropriate times and places, including behind the wheel.