In the largest study of its kind to date, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report last month revealing that 4.2% of drivers reported falling asleep at the wheel within the previous 30 days. “If you think of how many cars you see every day, one out of 25 — that’s a pretty big number”, said Anne G. Wheaton, an epidemiologist and lead author of the CDC report.
Among the 19 states from which data was collected, drowsy driving prevalence ranged from 2.5% in Oregon to 6.1% in Texas. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported almost identical findings in a previous smaller study, in addition to 11% of drivers falling asleep behind the wheel within the previous year.
Wheaton noted that the actual number of drivers falling asleep at the wheel is higher. “This percentage we reported is people that actually recognize that they had fallen asleep while driving,” she said. “A lot of people, if they fall asleep for a second or two, don’t even realize it.”
Although data collection methods make it challenging to estimate the number of crashes that involve drowsy drivers, NHTSA reported that 2.5% of fatal crashes in 2009 involved drowsy driving. According to the CDC, some modeling studies have estimated that the number is 15% to 33% of fatal crashes.
Those ages 25 to 34 had the highest prevalence of drowsy driving (the report did not include those under the age of 18), with men reporting higher incidents of falling asleep at the wheel than women. Those 65 and older were least likely to snooze behind the wheel.
Sleep-related crashes are more likely to happen at night or during the midafternoon, when drivers are more likely to be sleepy. These crashes often involve a single vehicle going off the road, with no evidence of braking or other attempt to prevent the crash, although sleep-related crashes also make up a disproportionate portion of rear-end and head-on collisions.
These findings are all too real for Nancy Willis from Havertown, PA, who lost her 19 year old son Alex in Massachusetts on July 9, 2010 when the driver of the vehicle in which he was a passenger fell asleep at the wheel. The young driver had just returned from a flight and was suffering from jet lag when she fell asleep, causing the vehicle to go off the roadway and roll over down an embankment, killing Alex. “I grieve for my son every day,” said Nancy. “There is a missing piece from our family that will never be replaced.”
As with so many of the “Faces of Distracted Driving” victims, Alex, who had just completed his freshman year at Macalester College in St. Paul MN, was an honors student who wanted to make a difference in this world. As a political science major and Latin American studies minor, Alex was passionate about social justice issues, particularly in Latin America, and had travelled there on multiple occasions throughout high school, working at the grass roots level for social change.
The CDC report hit home personally for Joel Feldman, founder of the Casey Feldman Foundation and EndDD .org, who knows the Willis family as friends and lost his own daughter due to distracted driving in 2009. “Alex was brilliant and passionate and was already making a difference in this world despite his young age,” said Feldman.
According to the CDC’s Anne Wheaton, “Although it is clear that falling asleep while driving is dangerous, drowsiness impairs driving skills even if drivers manage to stay awake. Drowsiness slows reaction time, makes drivers less attentive, and impairs decision-making skills, all of which can contribute to motor vehicle crashes.”
Wheaton, Anne G. “Drowsy Driving – 19 States and the District of Columbia, 2009-2010″, CDC – Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Morbidity and Mortality Report Weekly, January 4, 2013 / 61(51);1033-1037. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwR/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6151a1.htm. Accessed February 27, 2013
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Traffic safety facts crash stats: drowsy driving”. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 2011. Available at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/pubs/811449.pdf. Accessed February 27, 2013.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Faces of Distracted Driving“. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Available at http://www.distraction.gov/content/faces/. Accessed February 27, 2013.