The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has issued a new statement warning that drowsy driving is a serious public health issue that needs to be addressed. They advocate a combination of education about the problem, including special language in driver’s education manuals and dedicated drowsy driving educational programs, partly funded by the automobile insurance industry, which suffers some of the greatest financial losses related to this issue.

tired truck driver yawns while on the road

How Big Is the Problem?

We only have estimates on the number of accidents that are caused by drowsy driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has put out a relatively low estimate of the crashes caused by drowsy driving, saying it is responsible for about 72,000 crashes that caused 44,000 injuries and at least 800 deaths. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has a much higher estimate, saying about 328,000 crashes are caused by drowsy driving each year, including 6400 fatal crashes. The AAA figures would account for about 6% of all crashes in the US, but over 20% of the fatal crashes.

It’s hard to know where the true figure lies in this range, but, clearly, action is warranted, whether we might save 800 lives a year or 6000.

Who Is at Risk for Drowsy Driving?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have identified the primary candidates for drowsy driving , including:

  • Drivers who don’t get enough sleep
  • Commercial drivers
  • People who work long, night, or irregular shifts
  • Drivers whose medications make them sleepy
  • Drivers with untreated sleep disorders like sleep apnea

People with any of these characteristics should be alert to warning signs of drowsy driving and try to become aware of the signs of drowsy driving, such as yawning or blinking frequently, missing turns, memory difficulties while driving, and drifting, such as when you hit the rumble strip between lanes or on the side of the road.

Snoring Makes You Sleepy

The CDC also studied the risk that people would actually fall asleep behind the wheel. In a recent survey, about 4% of Americans admitted falling asleep behind the wheel in the previous 30 days! The study didn’t have the ability to determine how many of these people had sleep apnea, but it did ask them about snoring.

Snorers were significantly more likely to doze off behind the wheel than non-snorers, no matter how much sleep they thought they were getting. A full 8.5% of snorers who got 6 hours of sleep or less a night fell asleep behind the wheel in the last 30 days, compared to only 5.2% of nonsnorers who got the same amount of sleep. Even with getting a full 7-9 hours of sleep, 3.4% of snorers fell asleep behind the wheel. These figures are a pointed reminder that snoring is dangerous.

The AASM’s call for awareness is a good starting point. Let’s hope that people respond and do what it takes to ensure we’re all safe out there on the roads.

If you suspect that you may have sleep apnea in the Detroit area, please call (248) 480-0085 for an appointment with a sleep dentist at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness in Rochester Hills.