Report: Drowsy drivers cost US billions

Crashes from drowsy driving take lives, and cost billions each year. Several states are taking steps to combat the problem, which experts say leaves many drivers as impaired as they would be after a few too many drinks. 

There's a high cost to Americans' frequent habit of nodding off behind the wheel, however briefly: about 5,000 lives were lost last year to drowsy driving, according to a new report by the Governors Highway Safety Organization, which was funded by State Farm Insurance.

The key to combatting drowsy driving, according to the report called "Wake Up Call! Understanding Drowsy Driving and What States Can Do," is a combination of awareness efforts and policy steps that can help eliminate its causes and consequences. One of the major factors, say researchers, is understanding the importance of sleep.

"We live this lifestyle of constantly being 'on,'" report author and transportation safety consultant Pam Fischer says in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "One thing we can all do is make more time for sleep. It is common sense, but we have to make ourselves understand how important it is."

There is not yet a universal, objective definition of drowsy driving – a fact that makes it difficult for law enforcement officers or states to control the practice.

Yet, as Ms. Fischer tells the Monitor, there is little difference between the effects of driving while drowsy and driving while drunk.

"It is has always been a problem, just as long as we've been driving," she says, "just as there's always been a problem with people driving while impaired."

In fact, according to the report, drivers who have been up and active for 21 hours straight exhibit the same degree of distraction as drivers who operate with a Blood Alcohol Content of .08, the legal limit. Drivers who have been awake for 24 hours are as distracted as individuals with a BAC of .10.

Americans are notoriously sleepy. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of Americans get fewer than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. And teenagers, with their skewed sleep schedules and early school start times, may be in even worse shape: almost 70 percent of high school students do not get the prescribed eight hours on school nights.

Some 19.5 percent of American adults report moderate to excessive sleepiness, according to a 2010 study, while just 15 percent of European adults reported the same. 

"Insufficient sleep is plaguing the American population," the study's principal investigator, Stanford professor Maurice Ohayon, said at the time, "and is one of the leading factors for excessive daytime sleepiness."

On the road, the costs of less sleep are clear: drowsy drivers cause accidents, property damage, and even deaths. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy drivers cost society an estimated $109 billion dollars per year.

While there is still a great deal of room for improvement, the NHTSA and other agencies are taking the problem of drowsy driving seriously. Several traffic and highway safety agencies convened meetings last year to discuss the problem, and to determine what steps they could take to further their outreach to law enforcement agencies.

Some states are starting to do more. Iowa, Texas, Utah, and New York are all noted in the report as examples of best practices regarding drowsy driving prevention. Their steps toward better safety include posting signs to remind drivers to take a break, improving public education about the dangers of driving while sleepy, and instituting later school start times.

On Iowa's "Message Mondays," for example, electronic signs flash safety reminders like "Winter blues? Do not snooze while you cruise," or "Drowsy? Crash on a couch, not a road." 

"We do not want [a message] to be mundane," one of the state's traffic safety engineers says in the "Wake Up Call!" report. "We want it to resonate with drivers and spark conversation. If someone is passionate enough to talk about it in their car or to someone else, maybe they will get on their computer and dig a little further."

Technological advancements and engineering, too, might be able to help. In 2014, the Monitor reported on a new sensitive steering wheel that can detect when drivers are becoming sleepy. When it does, it vibrates to wake them up, potentially preventing fatal crashes. Rumble strips can also give drivers a jolt, signaling it's time to get off the road, and frequent highway rest stops can also promote taking a break. 

Yet there is no replacement for responsible sleep habits, according to Fischer. Perhaps the most important thing, she says, is changing sleep and driving norms to benefit drivers.

"Society has not recognized the importance of sleep," she says, "We have these sayings, 'you sleep when you die,' you know, but sleep is really the third leg in the good health stool, along with eating well and getting exercise. It is very important."

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