Recently, much hullabaloo has been made about the dangers of texting and driving. And before that—in the ‘80s—activists took to raising awareness about drinking while behind the wheel.

Both of these are still real dangers today, of course. However, new evidence suggests drivers should be aware of another trend that predates both of those destructive habits—drowsy driving.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) recently released a report, “Wake Up Call! Understanding Drowsy Driving and What States Can Do,” that discusses the dangers of driving when sleep-deprived. (It also details how to prevent drowsy driving.)   

In fact, the GHSA was so alarmed by what it found while researching the topic that it changed the definition of impaired driving. Impaired driving now includes driving while drowsy as well as distracted, drunk, or drugged.

Drowsy Driving by the Numbers

Why should America care about drowsy driving? Almost 83.6 million Americans drive while sleep-deprived every day. Also, around 5,000 people died in accidents related to drowsy driving last year alone.

“Like texting, drowsiness can keep you from giving your best visual and mental attention to the road. In some cases, drowsy driving can lead to dangerous ‘micro sleep events,’ which are temporary episodes of sleep, lasting from a fraction of a second up to 30 seconds," says Travelers’ Chris Hayes, second vice president, transportation, risk control. "While you can stop yourself from texting by simply putting your phone down, it's harder to control drowsy driving if you don't get adequate sleep.”

What's more, in some cases driving without getting enough sleep can affect you as much as driving under the influence.

"We have been advocating this for a long time, but unfortunately is does not get the same amount of attention as drunk driving, but it is just as lethal," T. Massey Arrington, director of sleep and neuro services at DeKalb Medical.

Here are a few more shocking facts about drowsy driving, according to the GHSA:

  • Drowsy drivers are involved in 328,000 accidents in an average year
  • 109,000 people are injured each year in a sleep-deprived incident
  • The annual societal cost tied to these crashes (not including property damage) is an astounding $109 billion
  • Drowsy driving can be as bad as driving drunk. Driving after 24 hours without sleep is like driving with a .10 percent blood alcohol concentration (BAC)
  • Getting behind the wheel after going 21 hours without sleep is the same as driving at a .08 percent BAC (the legal limit in all states)

infographic drowsy driving BAC

Infographic credit: GHSA

The GHSA report notes that most drowsy driving crashes have the following in common:

  • The driver is alone
  • They happen late at night, early morning, or mid-afternoon
  • They often result in serious injury or death
  • There isn't evidence of braking
  • They happen often on high speed roads
  • They involve a single vehicle leaving the roadway

Who's Most Likely to Drive Drowsy?

Drowsy driving effects everybody, but some groups are more prone to it than others. Like many other risky driving behaviors, young adults are particularly disposed to driving when they're overtired. According to USA Today, 50 percent of drowsy driving accidents involve people 25 years or younger.

"The demands put on today’s teens make it difficult for them to prioritize sleep—whether that’s high schoolers who have to get to class by 8 am or college students who are routinely pulling all-nighters," says Jonathan Adkins, GHSA’s executive director. "Somewhere along the road, sleep deprivation has come to be a sign of being a hard worker, with adults as well as teens."

The GHSA isn't the only group highlighting the importance of sleep. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recently published an article about the findings from its Drowsy Driving Consensus Panel.

The panel found that people who got less than two hours of sleep in the last 24 hours were too sleep deprived to drive. It also found that most drivers would be impaired if they only had three to five hours of sleep in the past 24 hours. This is significant, as it represents the first scientific consensus that it's unsafe to drive a car when sleep deprived.

"People think sleep is negotiable or that it is wasted time, when it is really as important as diet and exercise… surprisingly a 13- to 21-year-old needs at least 10 hours of sleep… That makes that subgroup more susceptible to dangers of sleep deprivation," says Arrington. "Catching up on the weekends does not scientifically work. Good sleep should be consistent."

Besides young people, others at risk include:

People with sleep disorders

Unfortunately, people are often unaware they have a disorder and don't get proper treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder.

"People should never think that poor sleep is acceptable or a 'part of life,'" says Arrington. "Seeking help early can prevent some serious consequences later on in life—such as hypertension, heart disease, obesity, strokes, divorce, job loss, [and] accidents."

Shift workers

People who have late-night jobs or work long hours—such as nurses, doctors, policeman, fireman, and first responders—are more prone to falling asleep at the wheel. According to the GHSA report, about 15 percent of the workforce are shift workers.

"People don’t know how dangerous a lack of sleep is, so they’re building up sleep debts that can’t be repaid," Adkins says. "If you’re already not getting much quality sleep and you’re working long hours, by the time you get behind the wheel and start to relax a little bit, your body is going to recognize how tired it is. Nobody is truly tireless, and it’s a huge problem when we only realize that once in the car."

People on certain medications

If you're taking medication, check the side effects. It could make you sleepy.

Commercial vehicle drivers

This includes those who drive buses, tractor trailers, and tow trucks. In fact, about 10 to 20 percent of bus or truck crashes likely involve tired drivers.

What's Being Done to Prevent Drowsy Driving?

Only two states have laws in place against those who drive drowsy and injure or kill someone—New Jersey and Arkansas. In New Jersey, the law applies to those who drive after not sleeping for more than 24 hours. Arkansas has a similar 24-hour law. Arkansas’ law also applies to those who are "in the state of being asleep."

In both states, the driver has to admit to being up for over 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, this is something few people will do. According to Adkins, it's also difficult to enforce these laws because it's hard to rule out all other possible causes for the crash. Thus, there has been limited success. 

Still, the GHSA and other organizations are taking steps to increase awareness. And although no other states have official laws against drowsy driving, many states are working to spread the word about the issue.

"Though drowsy driving bears impairment consequences similar to drinking and driving, it creates a unique problem in that it is much more difficult to measure a driver’s drowsiness than it is his or her BAC," Adkins says. "While GHSA currently has no official stance on the enactment of state legislation on drowsy driving, our focus remains on changing the driver behaviors that lead to drowsy driving…in order to prevent drowsy driving, we also have to change the culture and discourse around sleep in America."

For instance, highway signs remind drivers in Utah that drowsy driving causes crashes. These signs urge them to pull over if necessary. It may seem trivial, but these warnings have been cited for reducing crashes by as much as 63 percent.

In Iowa, the country's first statewide driving summit was held by the Governor's Traffic Safety Bureau, law enforcement, elected officials, researchers, and others. This summit gave attendees the chance to go over research on drowsy driving and come up with ways to get the message out about it.

GHSA also reports that New York is educating teens by working to develop a standardized driver's education curriculum that includes drowsy driving. In addition, officials there are suggesting a later start time for school.

"It’s important for states to understand the issue and educate the public about the risks of drowsy driving," says Adkins. "Acknowledging drowsy driving as a problem and comprehending the heavy cost it has on our society…is the first step in finding solutions."

Arrington, agreeing about the importance of spreading the message, says, "DOT and special groups have been trying to lobby for change, but it is really up to the legislators to take action. Public awareness is key."

Another of GHSA’s suggestions is to add rumble strips to roads. They also suggest replacing guardrails with median cable barriers to reduce head-on collisions and adding more signs alerting motorists about rest area locations.

Distracted Driving Vs. Drowsy Driving: Which is Worse?

Interestingly, there has been some speculation that one proposed law in New Jersey might increase drowsy driving rather than lower it.

The Garden State hopes to deter residents from driving while distracted by enforcing a rule that would ban them from doing anything not related to driving. This includes the usual texting and talking on the phone. But it also includes activities like drinking coffee, eating breakfast, or putting on makeup.

This law could even include simply listening to music, as the proposed bill says, "any activity, not related to the operation of the vehicle, in a manner that interferes with the safe operation of the vehicle," would be outlawed.

While this may sound great in theory, some are concerned about "risk tradeoffs." If you can't listen to music or drink coffee, you may be more prone to drowsy driving.

Still, Adkins notes that distracted driving isn't the answer to falling asleep at the wheel.

"All forms of distracted driving pose a threat on our roadways. With an average of 328,000 crashes happening each year due to drowsy driving, this is certainly an issue that deserves public awareness and attention," Adkins says. "While we’ve all heard tips and tricks for keeping ourselves awake behind the wheel (turn the AC on, blast music), attempting to replace one form of impairment with another is not a solution. The only sure-fire way to prevent drowsy driving is to be well-rested, so if you’re tired, find a safe spot to pull off the road and rest for a bit before continuing your trip."

Insurance Implications of Falling Asleep at the Wheel

And if the possibility of getting into an accident isn't motivation enough to get a good night's rest, consider the fact that driving while drowsy increases your chances of paying more for car insurance.

If an insurance company sees that you were in an accident because you fell asleep at the wheel, you'll certainly be charged higher rates. Nevertheless, insurers can't punish drivers for behavior they don't know about.

Thomas Simeone, personal injury attorney at Simeone & Miller, LLP, points out that if a driver gets a ticket for dozing off that doesn't result in an accident, the insurance company might not know why they were pulled over. Because laws differ across states, the police officer might cite the driver for not paying attention instead.

And, as mentioned previously, reports of drowsy driving are often dependent on the driver admitting their guilt. "Insurance companies can definitely ask anyone applying for insurance (or a renewal) about incidents of drowsy driving, but they will be relying on the applicant self-reporting and will not have any independent verification," Simeone says. "Nevertheless, if someone has drowsy driving listed on their record, they will be a higher risk—just like people who have reckless driving, speeding, failing to yield— and will likely be charged a higher premium."

Still, it looks like detecting drowsy driving and enforcing any changes will come down to technology.

For instance, Simeone notes that some vehicles come with devices that help identify drowsy driving. These devices beep to get the driver’s attention until they press a button to confirm they're awake. This is one way insurers could keep an eye on drivers. They could also make someone who's received a ticket for sleeping at the wheel keep a device in their car. 

Edward Van Eckert, owner of the Farmers Insurance agencies in the New Jersey cities of Metuchen and Woodbridge, agrees. He says that although he doesn't see any additional increase in insurance coming directly from the GHSA data, technology might get us closer to fixing the problem of driving with little sleep.

Van Eckert believes self-driving cars will help, at least somewhat.

"Self-driving vehicles might well play a factor in reducing drowsy driver incidents... while ironically also possibly creating [drowsier] drivers as that the operators interaction with the vehicle is minimized and may incline them to doze off from boredom," he says. "As we now have self-parallel-parking vehicles reducing banged up bumpers, the result is that we are observing a population of less-adept drivers having fewer curbside fender-bender incidents. In that vein, we could possibly expect our newer crop of less attentive and sleepy drivers not running themselves off the road thanks to the coming self-driving 'auto pilot' technology."

At least in the trucking world, technology is already helping to figure out who's on the road when they shouldn't be. Dave Delaney, head of digital marketing at OwnerOperatorDirect.com, shares that the federal government is starting to require Electronic Logging Devices (ELDs) for all truckers. Instead of a truck driver recording his hours, the ELD tracks how long the trucker is on the road.

"As insurers, when we look at the ELD logs, what we're finding more and more is that the only thing that matters when it comes to accidents [and] claims...is whether or not the truck driver has had a good night's sleep," says Delaney. "So we are considering a future where we offer rates based on a driver's ELD."

Delaney notes that while truckers tend to hate the devices, the ELDs are able to give insurers a hint of how well rested drivers are. This lets them know who is a less risky driver and should be receiving cheaper rates.

"Personal auto insurance companies might be slightly behind the commercial insurance companies, but once it's realized that sleep is the most important factor in determining accidents, then eventually there will be an ELD-type system for everyone," says Delaney. "Whether it's an incentive to submit your Fitbit or Apple Watch's sleep info, or just to upload the hourly data from your car's dashboard, insurers will find a way to tap into how much you slept last night."

Delaney, for his part, does believe research into the problem is helping spread the word. "As drowsy driving becomes more of an issue—based in part by studies like [GHSA’s]—state legislatures may create specific laws prohibiting it. That will provide insurance companies with the information they need.  It is very hard to predict when that will happen, but it is likely a long term event."

Warnings Signs of Drowsy Driving

Sometimes you may not realize how tired you are until you're already on the road. Or you may know you're sleepy, but think you'll be able to make it home.

After all, most people are more comfortable sleeping in their own bed. But while it can be tempting, if you start to feel tired, it's better to pull over rather than risk your life.

"Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to serve as a replacement for rest, so as a driver it’s crucial to be aware of your level of tiredness and be willing to stop and take a break when needed," says Adkins.

Here are some warning signs to look out for from the CDC:

  • Yawning frequently
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Hitting the rumble strip
  • Difficulty remembering your exit

Tips to Avoid Drowsy Driving

How can you escape getting too tired to drive? One of the best and most obvious ways is to get plenty of sleep.

According to Arrington, the gold standard is seven hours. Some people may need eight. If you get less than that, you'll have a slower reaction time, and that increases your chances of getting into an accident.

"More than eight is not beneficial and less than seven is detrimental," he says.

Arrington also recommends not relying on caffeine or sugar, although it can be an easy fix. And if you're a snorer? You might want to see a specialist.

"If you snore, then you probably have sleep apnea and need to seek out a board certified sleep specialist," Arrington says. Sleep apnea can make you feel tired even when you've had the recommended amount of rest.

"Sleep is the only definite way to prevent drowsy driving," Adkins says. "That means prioritizing a longer night’s sleep, pulling over to take a nap when you feel drowsiness hit, and making other arrangements for getting from point A to point B when you’re not well-rested."

To get a better night's rest, GHSA suggests you:

  • Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine before bed
  • Don't eat a large meal or drink late at night
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, but avoid working out two to three hours before you go to bed
  • Don't nap after 3 pm
  • Develop a sleeping schedule you follow every day, not just on weekdays
  • Relax before going to bed by taking a bath, listening to music, or reading
  • Contact your doctor if you have trouble sleeping

"Limiting screen-time on electronics before bed, keeping your phone in another room while you sleep, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and avoiding caffeine late in the day are all ways to improve the quality of your rest," Adkins says.

Besides getting plenty of sleep, here are a few ways the National Institute of Health and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say you can keep from feeling tired while driving:

  • Avoid driving alone. Having someone in the car with you will come in handy if you need to switch drivers. They can also talk to you to help you stay awake
  • Don't drink and drive. Ever. Everyone knows drinking and driving is dangerous, but drinking and driving while sleep deprived is even worse. Having one beer when you're already tired is similar to driving after drinking two or three beers when you've gotten plenty of sleep
  • Try not to drive between midnight and 7 am, or in the mid-afternoon
  • Schedule plenty of breaks if you're driving for a long period of time. Try to stop every 100 miles, or every two hours