Elijah Black is a Greenville, South Carolina native with a B.A. English from Coastal Carolina University. He is a fiction writer and also works as a freelance writer and editor. He’s worked as a Production Assistant for WYFF 4 and has been published in several publications and websites across the United States.

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Rachael Brennan has been working in the insurance industry since 2006 when she began working as a licensed insurance representative for 21st Century Insurance, during which time she earned her Property and Casualty license in all 50 states. After several years she expanded her insurance expertise, earning her license in Health and AD&D insurance as well. She has worked for small health in...

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Reviewed by Rachael Brennan
Licensed Auto Insurance Agent

UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020

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What Does Drowsy Driving Look Like?

“Asleep at the wheel” may be a common figure of speech, but it’s also a dangerous reality on American
roadways. Fatigued driving is commonly referred to as drowsy driving. Based on a growing number of
fatigue-related accidents, drowsy driving is receiving more attention than ever before as a major risk factor
for all drivers in the US.

DrowsyDriving.org sponsored by the National Sleep Foundation
describes the practice of drowsy driving as “fatal.”

Comparable to impaired driving of any kind—drugs or alcohol—drowsy driving may often result in single
car crashes. The driver may fall asleep at the wheel and run off the road or crash into a guardrail or
stationary object. A drowsy driving single-car crash may be unique since skid marks from heavy braking may
not be found at the scene of the accident; the driver was simply asleep behind the wheel.

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Likelihood of driving drowsy

by age




Source: National sleep foundation

by gender



by parental status


with children


without children

But wait, there’s more

Drivers who admit to having driven drowsy before


Drivers who have driven drowsy within the past month


Fallen asleep within the past 30 days


Commercial drivers are a high-risk group as they spend a significant amount of time on the road. 28% of
commercial drivers may have fallen asleep at the wheel within the past 30 days.


The annual amount of drowsy drivers
on the road totaled to 168 million in 2012

Crash report

Average annual drowsy-related accidents from 2005 to 2009

Drowsy driving causes numerous deaths, injuries thousands, and results in tremendous destruction of property every year.

damage only



Average total 83,000

Driver fatigue results in around

x 1 billion

$12.5 Billion

Source : mnn.com

The unfortunate truth is that many drivers don’t realize how drowsy they are. They don’t make a
conscious decision to drive impaired by fatigue on a regular basis. Yet similar to drinking alcohol, drowsiness
has a subtle yet detrimental effect on the body. As a driver, you may not recognize how tired you really are.
You may not fully grasp the magnitude of driving drowsy until you experience a slowed reaction time, impaired
vision or judgment, or increased aggression on the road—i.e., road rage.

With drowsy driving risk factors so hard to identify, how can you tell when you are in
the danger zone?

If you’re feeling tired before driving, take a moment
to assess your risk level with the following questions:

  • Am I fatigued or sleep deprived (6 hours of sleep or less)?

  • Do I suffer from insomnia or regular sleep loss?

  • Have I driven a long distance without adequate breaks?

  • Am I driving overnight or at a time when I would normally fall asleep?

  • Have I taken any sedative medications, like antihistamines or cold medication?

  • Have I been working overtime, such as a second job or shift work?

  • Have I consumed even a small amount of alcohol?


If any of the risk factors above ring a bell, you may be embarking on a drowsy drive. A long
drive alone on a dark road in a rural area may not stimulate you enough to keep your eyes open. Adding
other risk factors into the mix, like a poor night of sleep, a long day of work, or cold medicine, could
lead to you nodding off without even knowing it.

The Profile of a Drowsy Driver

Based on the statistics above, there are several primary risk factors for drowsy driving.
Recognizing these risk factors in advance could save you from a potentially dangerous trip home that could
have been easily avoided.

The National Sleep Foundation lists top drowsy
driving risk factors as:

Young adults, especially men
under age 26

Shift workers

People that work long hours,
especially the night shift

Commercial long-distance drivers

People with untreated or undiagnosed
disorders, like sleep apnea

Business travelers, especially those
experiencing jetlag

If you work long or irregular hours, drowsy driving is a distinct possibility.

Working the night shift can increase your risk of drowsy driving by six times. High-risk workers include
employees that work more than 60 hours a week. A long day at the office followed by a sleepy drive home could
result in a serious or fatal crash.

To add insult to injury, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that

one in five
Americans doesn’t get adequate sleep

This means that up to 20% of drivers on the road could be at risk for a dangerously drowsy drive at
any given time. This same driver sleepiness is related to roughly 20% of serious injuries in motor vehicle

Over 50 million Americans are
plagued by a chronic sleep disorder

No matter how you slice it, the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to fall asleep while
driving. The CDC backs up the claim that sleep issues in everyday life can quickly translate into increased risk
behind the wheel. Particularly, people who snored or got six hours or less of sleep a night were more likely to
experience drowsy driving behavior.

According to the CDC, 8.5% of adults who snored and slept 6 hours or less a night were likely to
fall asleep while driving:






Adults ≥18 Years Who Fell Asleep While Driving in Preceding 30 Days Behavioral Risk Factor
Surveillance System, 19 States and the District of Columbia, 2009-2010

The CDC offers several drowsy driving warning signs to watch out for, especially if
you meet the fatigued driver criteria listed above:




an exit

Drifting in
a lane


While some warning signs may seem minor—like continuous blinking—others are more serious—like drifting to the shoulder of the road. To prevent a major accident, it’s critical to take minor warning signs for drowsy driving seriously as they happen. Don’t wait until your car drifts into another lane. Then, it may already be too late.

Drowsy Driving

Drunk Driving

Most people recognize that drunk
driving is a serious, dangerous offense
that should be punished as a crime.

Yes, drunk driving is against the law in every state if your blood alcohol level exceeds 0.08. However, in many states, drowsy driving is not a punishable offense, although statistics indicate that it can be just as dangerous as drunk driving.

According to the CDC, cognitive function declines significantly after staying awake for 18 hours. This cognitive impairment is equivalent to an impaired driver with a BAC of 0.05. While 0.05 is still under the legal limit to drive, staying awake for 24 hours affects cognitive impairment to the equivalent of a BAC of 0.10 or higher—exceeding the legal limit in all states.

Research doesn’t lie. A recent study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine showed a direct correlation between the effects of driving drunk and driving sleepy. Both behaviors were considered highly dangerous.

Both behaviors doubled the risk of causing a car crash

The study was conducted on 679 people that were hospitalized due to a car accident from 2007 to 2009 in France. The results of the study matched the National Sleep Foundation’s drowsy driving profile— younger adults and men were more likely to engage in sleepy driving.

This intriguing study complemented research that
was recently released from the Netherlands
proving that

Driving at night for just two hours was equivalent to driving while buzzed.

Driving at night for three hours was equivalent to driving drunk.

Drowsy driving affects the body in a manner similar to alcohol. Sleepiness while driving can impact:


reaction time


Physicians like Dr. Lisa Shives, M.D. of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Illinois consider education to be the key in both circumstances. Preventing drunk and drowsy driving starts by raising public awareness. Very few drivers understand that both drunk and fatigued driving pose a similar risk.

drunk driving stats

10,000 fatalities in 2010

1/3 of traffic fatalities in the U.S.

$37 billion in damages annually

drowsy driving stats

1,550 fatalities annually

100,000 crashes annually

40,000 crashes resulted in injuries

driving drowsy as a crime

States like Washington have considered legislation that would make driving drowsya crime, akin to drunk driving. Even run-of-the-mill drowsy driving can lead to a number of related motor vehicle offenses, like reckless driving, vehicular assault, or vehicular homicide. New Jersey is another progressive state that put a ban on drowsy driving in 2003. Drivers in a traffic accident that were “knowingly fatigued,” i.e. confirmed as awake more than 24 hours, could face up to a $100,000 fine and a 10 year prison sentence.

The National Sleep Foundation takes another tack

Instead of urging public officials to pass legislation against drowsy driving—which may be necessary to reduce risk for all drivers on the road—the National Sleep Foundation emphasizes that,

“All people need between 7 and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night to feel well rested and function at their fullest.”

Those that fit the drowsy driving profile are often burning
the candle at both ends.

Sleep apnea

If that is not the case, an at-risk drowsy driver may have a particular health issue that must be addressed to correct any existing sleep deficiencies, like sleep apnea or insomnia. If life’s circumstances or health issues have caused a sleep debt to occur, it will result in daytime drowsiness. While this may seem like a no-brainer, the biochemical response of the body in partnership with natural circadian rhythms will make a driver feel even sleepier as it grows dark in the early evening hours.

Thus, a simple drive home after a long day of work could result in a dangerously drowsy drive. Many times, drivers may not feel noticeably fatigued. But it’s hard to fight the sleep-wake cycle, especially after sleep debt has accrued. A boring drive on a long stretch of highway could cause a driver to nod off. When interacting with other cars on the road, fatigue behind the wheel will decrease coordination, memory, and reaction time, while increasing the likelihood of a crash.

How to Prevent This Hidden Driving Danger

As the National Sleep Foundation and other major organizations have emphasized time and again, awareness is key to put an end to drowsy driving. Drunk driving campaigns have been going strong for years, but what about protection and awareness for unsuspecting drowsy drivers?

This yearly observance is used as a prime opportunity to put an end to drowsy driving by raising awareness of the vast number of fatigue-related crashes in the US. The annual campaign offers public education on fatigued driving, as well as helpful tips to improve road safety for all drivers.

Drowsy Driving Prevention Week was sponsored by the National Sleep Foundation from November 3-10th, 2013.

If you fall into the category of an at-risk drowsy driver, it’s important to stay vigilant and alert each time you drive. Once familiar warning signs start to occur:






If you’re driving home after a long day at the office, take a moment to ask a friend or family member to pick you up at a safe location. Or, consider taking a cab home from work if you’re too exhausted to drive after working late into the night.

If you’re on a road trip and feel maxed out, it’s likely that you’re already unsafe behind the wheel. Driving a long stretch of unfamiliar road while tired is a recipe for disaster. Take a moment to pull into a rest stop and look up a nearby motel, where you can stay for the night. It may seem like a waste of time and money to book a hotel in the middle of a road trip—but there’s nothing more valuable than your life, and the lives of other drivers on the road.

Drowsy driving isn’t harmless

Drowsy driving awareness works to eradicate the “It couldn’t happen to me” mentality. Yes, fatigued driving can and will happen to you sometime in your lifetime, unless the necessary precautions are taken in advance. Though you may feel confident in your driving ability on a long road trip, after a taxing day of work or following a night of little sleep, you may not know you’re in danger until you drift off to sleep behind the wheel.

The National Sleep Foundation provides a wealth of heartbreaking stories of fatigued driving accident casualties on DrowsyDriving.org.

In one such story, 14-year-old Kevin Mackey was killed while riding his bicycle on a quiet neighborhood street in Maryland in 1998. Kevin was struck by a postal worker driving home after an 11 hour shift that had started at 4 AM. The postal worker hadn’t slept in a day and could barely keep her eyes open while driving home.

You can take 5 preventative measures to eliminate the risk of drowsy driving altogether:

Make it a priority to sleep for 7-9 hours each night.

Try to drive with a friend at high-risk times; carpool home from work or buddy up on a road trip.

Never drive after taking a medication that could make you drowsy.

Arrange for alternate transportation when driving home after a long day with little rest.

Don’t try to push yourself on a road trip, even within a few hours of your destination.

Once drowsiness sets in, it’s time to take action. Here are 5 steps you can take to stay bright eyed and bushy tailed on your next road trip:

Stop driving as soon as you experience drowsy warning signs.

Pull over to sleep in a safe rest area for 15-20 minutes.

Take rest breaks often to re-energize with a snack and to stretch your legs.

Avoid alcohol altogether; even a small amount of alcohol can greatly increase drowsiness.

Share driving in shifts with a friend.

Just as importantly, commercial drivers must make it a priority not to exceed their driving hours and to take all required rest breaks. The rule of thumb goes as follows:

Drivers should take turns driving on a long trip or commit to taking regular breaks—every two hours or 100 miles.

Caffeine can provide a jolt for several hours but isn’t recommended for a long trip.

Though it may seem like common knowledge, there are several drowsy driving myths that are still in circulation. Many drivers trying to make “good time” on a road trip will chug coffee or energy drinks, turn up the air conditioning, turn on loud music, or open a window. These tricks simply do not work and will not decrease your risk of driving fatigue. it’s still possible to fall asleep behind the wheel in a cold car with loud music blasting.

If you can’t keep your eyes open, you shouldn’t be on the road

Drive smart, not drowsy. Drowsiness and fatigue happen to the best of us, especially after a particularly grueling week at the office or on a cross-country trip. Getting adequate rest each night will make you a better and safer driver. Recognizing the warning signs of drowsy driving early on could literally save your life.