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Opinion Perspectives

Risks of Drowsy Driving Often Underestimated

It’s 4:45 a.m., the morning of my first final. I shut my laptop and drag my feet to bed, rolling into the covers in my jeans. Two hours later I’m up again, slumping into the front seat of my car and heading to school.

Now it’s a sunny afternoon. My hand subconsciously reaches to the gear shift, my foot sinks into the gas pedal, and my car rolls slowly across the intersection. I’m heading home, staring and scratching blankly at the brown paint peeling from the dashboard; my eyes lose focus and blurry ribbons of color pass by either side. My mind is a million miles away, echoing with the drilling pound of my head and numbed by the white sunlight pouring over my senses.

My gaze turns upward. Break lights are flying toward me at 40 miles per hour, and a silver bumper swallows the hood of my car.

Fumes of nitrogen and burnt rubber fill my lungs; coughing, I open my eyes and find myself surrounded by thick smoke and exhausted airbags. My arms yank at the jammed passenger door. What happened?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 100,000 police-reported crashes in 2017 will be the direct result of sleep deprivation. Of these accidents, 1,550 drivers will die and $12.5 billion will be lost to damage repair.

Sleep-deprived driving, while often fatal, is societally underestimated.

For one, it’s difficult to measure sleepiness — no instruments, such as Breathalyzers for intoxicated driving, exist to place specific parameters around how drowsy is too drowsy. Thus, law enforcement is unable to monitor it and no California state laws currently exist to discourage it. The only legislation ever passed by the California Senate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, was the proclamation of April 6, 2005 as “Drowsy Driver Awareness Day,” which was hardly effective in discouraging sleep-deprived driving then, let alone eleven years later.

Nationally, sleep-deprived driving receives just as relaxed regulation; on the legal website Quora, Washington police officer Paul Chung states that a charge for Reckless Driving is highly unlikely if “all [the police] have” is a sleep-deprived driver. “They are usually just scolded and sent on their way.”

With no legal repercussions to face until an accident finally occurs, avoiding drowsy driving falsely seems unnecessary and inconvenient.

Drowsy driving is also prevalent due to a lack of public education, conversation, and information. “Don’t drink and drive” signs decorate the sides of freeways; signs warning against drowsy driving are virtually nonexistent. In addition, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF)’s 1999 “Sleep in America” poll found that 60 percent of parents with children who drive never had initiated a conversation about the dangers of drowsy driving. These household conversations, while not effective standing alone, are an important stepping stone to raising awareness.

In addition, only section 17 of Chapter A of Unit 2 in the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Drivers Education mentions risks found in fatigued driving. The four bullet points embodying this section are a meager warning to cover an issue that causes 20 percent of all annual accidents. While individuals are personally responsible for ensuring their safe driving, an increase in education and awareness will help drivers fully understand the risks they pose when driving sleep-deprived.

A lack of awareness also causes individuals, particularly young people, to overestimate their ability to function properly when drowsy. A 2004 study by the European Conference of Ministers of Transport in Australia determined that young people, peaking at age 18, generally display an overestimation of their abilities behind the wheel. According to the NSF’s 2002 poll, young adults ages 18 to 29 are also particularly prone to sleep deprivation: twice as likely, in fact, as other age groups. These statistics may be a result of demanding academics, rising careers, active social lives, increased independence, or other factors. However, the product of these two truths is evident: the NSF has estimated that more than half of all fatigue-related accidents involve drivers under the age of 25, who overestimate their abilities and underestimate their sleep-deprived impairment.

In 2000, a study by Australian researchers found that being awake for 22 hours produced an impairment in judgment, coordination, and reaction time equal to that of being legally intoxicated (0.08 blood alcohol content). In 2011, researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that driving for three hours at night is akin to driving drunk. Awareness of the risks posed by drunk driving has surged in the past few decades, and it’s time that awareness of drowsy driving does as well.

I wish it hadn’t taken an accident for me to realize that no one, even myself, is an exception to the statistics.

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