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Drowsy Driving as Dangerous as Drunk Driving, Experts Say

When you’re out on the road and see someone weaving dangerously between lanes for no reason whatever, or whose speed changes without warning or cause, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? It would only be natural for you to think, “I’ll bet that driver has had a few too many tonight!”

Here’s another thought, however. What if the person causing you to consider calling 9-1-1 to report a possible drunk driver is simply very drowsy and falling asleep behind the wheel? At first glance, you’d be justified in saying, “Well, one is just as dangerous as the other,” and you’d be right!

According to a comprehensive study carried out by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a shocking 41 percent of the drivers surveyed admitted to having fallen asleep behind the wheel at least once. It could be a scary thought, but one in 10 actually say they’d fallen asleep while driving just within the past 12 months.

The statistics relating to fatal car crashes involving fatigued drivers compared to drunk drivers are at first glance quite surprising. What may be even more surprising, then, are the steps the various states, including Oregon, have taken to remove this peril for our roads.

Here’s the breakdown, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA):

  • One in every six fatal traffic accidents on American roads is the result of someone falling asleep behind the wheel or by being fatigue-impaired in some other way.
  • One in three fatal accidents is caused by a drunk driver.
  • Every one of the 50 American states has laws banning drunk driving.
  • In spite of the proven, documented and serious risks attached to driving while sleep deprived, only one state in the country has a law against driving while fatigue-impaired, and that’s New Jersey.

All the research points to the fact that sleep deprivation can have the exact same effects on a driver as one who has been drinking. In fact, a study carried out in Australia, where volunteers went 20 hours without sleep, came up with some astonishing results.

The volunteers were tested for response speeds against well-rested people of similar age and driving experience, and also against those who had a few drinks. The results showed that the volunteers who had gone without sleep had response speeds a shocking 50 percent slower than those who had gotten plenty of sleep. What’s more, the sleep-deprived volunteers’ performance was almost identical to those with a blood alcohol content of .05 percent, which is getting close to the legal limit.

It seems downright foolish, then, that states do not have laws and policies in place to discourage people from driving while sleep deprived, when it’s shown that lack of sleep:

  • Significantly slows reaction time
  • Decreases awareness
  • Impairs judgment to the exact same degree as having had a few drinks

Maggie’s Law

New Jersey introduced legislation which says any driver who causes a fatality after being awake for 24 straight hours or more can be prosecuted for vehicular homicide. The law was introduced after a public outcry when a 20-year-old named Maggie was killed by a sleeping driver.

While states including Oregon, along with New York, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois are considering similar laws, the nay-sayers are claiming that it would be too difficult to prove in court that someone was awake for 24 hours straight, as there are no scientific tests or measurements to provide definitive proof.

Technology to the rescue…but not yet

The NHTSA are counting on the people who design and develop technical innovations to come up with a new device that can tell when a driver is nodding off. The University of Iowa has been contracted to develop sensors that can tell when a driver isn’t braking, steering or accelerating as they should be. While this device has already been tested and found useful in cases of alcohol impairment, researchers say large-scale implementation is still a few years away at least.

Five ways to keep ourselves safe(r)

Until such time as the scientists and legislators find a way to either keep people awake behind the wheel or keep sleepy drivers off the road, there are a few steps we can take to protect ourselves from the very real dangers posed by sleep-deprived motorists, including:

  • Appoint a designated driver. If you know you’re likely to be too tired to drive, ask someone who looks rested, refreshed (and sober) to do the driving.
  • Take the bus! Public transportation is an excellent alternative if you suddenly find yourself heading out in the morning after just being deprived of a good night’s sleep. Jump on a bus or a train, and you might even be able to squeeze in a cat nap before you get where you’re going.
  • Read the label! If you’ve taken medication that says not to operate heavy machinery after taking the prescribed dosage, please bear in mind that a car is actually heavier than a forklift and most certainly falls under the category “heavy machinery.” It doesn’t matter if you feel fine immediately after taking the medication. A typical antihistamine will stay in your system from six to eight hours.
  • Be honest when you ask yourself the question, “Am I getting a bit drowsy?” If your eyelids suddenly feel like they’re made out of lead, or if you find your mind drifting off while your car is suddenly in a lane it shouldn’t be in, or you’ve moved so close to the car in front of you that you feel you should introduce yourself, then it’s time to get yourself off the road.
  • By all means, try the extra strong espresso or the energy drink. Play loud music; open your window to let fresh air in; ask your passengers to stay awake with you and keep talking, but if these things don’t work and you’re still feeling sleepy, don’t ignore the warning signs your body is sending you. Do not push through because you’re only two hours from your destination. Get some sleep in a safe place before continuing.

Remember, it’s far better to arrive late than never to arrive at all. The sad fact is that many road fatalities involving sleep-deprived drivers often occur when families set out on long road trips for a vacation.

In Oregon, people are injured and killed every year by people who might be very good drivers under normal conditions. They weren’t drinking, they weren’t speeding and they weren’t doing drugs. Instead, they got behind the wheel of a car or truck when they should have been climbing into bed to catch 40 winks.

Sadly, these types of accidents injure or kill completely innocent road users. Pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers are the ones that pay the ultimate price when someone else falls asleep behind the wheel.

If this kind of thing has happened to you in Oregon, the medical bills and lost wages shouldn’t be your responsibility. The person who was driving when they shouldn’t have been should be held liable for the damage caused, both physical and financial. Speak to a reputable and experienced Portland car accident attorney to find out how to go about getting the compensation you deserve and that you and your family will need to help you recover.