Ask anyone what causes most car accidents and you’ll hear the usual suspects: alcohol, texting, distracted driving, and speeding. However, a recent survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cites drowsy driving as a major cause of traffic accidents in the United States. Drowsy driving causes more accidents than most weather events. Studies suggest upwards of 30,000 accidents per year involve motorists who drive while tired. A AAA Study indicates 41% of all Americans—that’s almost half—have admitted to falling asleep while driving at least once.
Drowsy driving differs from other causes of automobile accidents. A speeding driver gets ticketed by the police or chastised by other drivers. Likewise, everyone knows the dangers of drinking and driving. And ask any driver in the 865 area code, and they’ll tell you that when the weather gets bad, traffic slows to a crawl. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, is often worn as a badge of honor. Our busy, 24/7 world views drowsiness as proof of hard work. The National Institute of Health suggests the average adult gets 7-8 hours of sleep per night. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control, however, found one in three Americans get less than 7 hours of sleep per night.
The same CDC study found over 6% of drivers age 25-45 admitted to falling asleep while driving once in the past month. That’s roughly 1 out of every 17 drivers. You could pass 17 drivers in less than a minute on I-75. Chances are, one of those drivers is prone to drowsiness and nodding off while behind the wheel.
For a city like Knoxville, the problem of drowsy driving can become even greater. Spring in Knoxville, aside from our lovely hikes when the trees begin to bloom, means the end of classes at UT.
Imagine, if you will, a typical co-ed. The weeks leading up to finals see many sleepless nights. When our Vols aren’t haunting the Hodges Library in the early hours of the morning, nose in a textbook, they’re at the coffee shop, hammering out another term paper in the glow of their laptop. After these weeks of bleary-eyed work come the finals themselves. Finals week is a gauntlet of tests with last-minute cram sessions sandwiched between. It’s amazing the students survive at all.
What is a co-ed’s reward for getting through this tough time? Summer vacation. Ground to powder by finals week, relieved students load their cars with clothes and electronics and stream onto I-75 or I-40 en masse, all hoping to get home before the weekend.
All the data tells us this is an incredibly dangerous situation. Even the most alert drivers have problems driving through the Smokies. Add the lovely (but dangerous!) curves of the Great Smoky Mountains to a student who’s been running on little more than caffeine and ramen and our beautiful drive is a disaster waiting to happen.
The NIH recommends college students get 8-9 hours of sleep per night. Surveys of college students, however, show most get less than 6 hours of shut-eye. It’s not just Volunteers who are sleep deprived either; the numbers show the same thing from Stanford to NYU to Iowa State: college students don’t get enough sleep. Compounding this problem is the fact that younger people, such as college students, are more likely to nod off while driving. The numbers go even higher for those who are prone to snoring while sleeping at night.
The basic fact, college students or no, is this: drowsy drivers are motoring through Knoxville and Eastern Tennessee right now. Motorists are fighting heavy eyes and nodding off as you read these words.
One of the reasons drowsy driving can be so utterly devastating is that, unlike drunk driving, most motorists think they can simply “power through.” We make jokes about buying caffeine pills and 40 oz. coffees at gas stations. We roll down the window. We turn up the radio. Study after study, however, show that none of these things—not caffeine, not the cold wind from open windows, not our air conditioners or heavy metal blaring at 100 decibels—have any mitigating effect on drowsy driving.
We know better than to simply roll down the car window if we’ve had a glass of wine too many. Instead we call a cab. Drowsy driving should be exactly the same.
Much like intoxication, the only way to lessen the dangers of drowsy driving is to pull off the road and sleep. Drowsy driving deserves to be treated the same as texting and driving, or driving through snow and ice. Though survey results make the exact numbers hard to pin down, we believe that drowsy driving can account to up to 5,000 deaths per year. That number makes drowsy driving more deadly than Salmonella, Listeria, Botulism and all other food-borne pathogens combined.
The danger doesn’t lie in motorists nodding off while driving alone. Think to that moment when the alarm clock first goes off in the morning. Usually we flail our weary arm two or three times before we manage to slap the snooze alarm and buy a few more precious minutes of sleep. Driving while drowsy is exactly the same. Drowsiness reduces our reaction time and motor skills. Even though drowsy driving doesn’t carry the same stigma, there is truly little difference between drowsiness and intoxication when it comes to getting behind the wheel of an automobile.
So when we’re driving and we find ourselves constantly blinking, or if we can’t control our yawning or if miles pass by in a blink without any memory, it’s imperative we pull off the roadway and catch a few Zs. The rumble strips lining I-640 aren’t there to simply jolt us awake. They’re a warning that we’re swerving too much, that our bodies are too tired to safely operate a motor vehicle. For our sake and for the sake of the motorists around, any signs of drowsy driving should be dealt with no differently than the driving rain that our wipers can’t keep up with.
If your or a loved on have been in a car accident, whether it be due to drowsy driving or something else, do not hesitate to contact the attorneys at Hodges, Doughty & Carson, PLLC today.