A growing road hazard: Drowsy drivers

You’re driving along the road and see a car in front of you swerving, even gliding toward the edge of the road. But it’s the middle of the afternoon. Isn’t it too early for a drunken driver? Probably not. But this may very well be an equally dangerous type of motorist -- the drowsy driver.

Chances are, you’re at risk of being a drowsy driver. Say you haven’t gotten a full eight hours of sleep for a few nights in a row, or you’ve had a stressful week at work. If you get behind the wheel, you could be an accident waiting to happen.

Drowsy driving doesn’t grab headlines like drunken driving does, but it’s a serious problem nonetheless. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 100,000 crashes reported to police every year are caused by drowsy driving, resulting in 71,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths.

auto insurance drowsy driving

It may sound far-fetched to think all these accidents are caused by tired drivers, but in some respects, drowsy driving is very much like drunken driving. A driver is considered legally drunk with a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.08 percent. A driver who has gone a day without sleep reacts similarly to a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent, which is above the legal limit.

Who’s at risk?

In a 2010 study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, two out of every five drivers surveyed acknowledged having fallen asleep or nodded off while driving at some point in their lives, and 11 percent of those say they did so within the past year.

Young men and solo drivers are more likely to be involved in a drowsy driving crash. According to the AAA Foundation study:

• Men were 61 percent more likely than women to have been drowsy drivers.

• Drivers under age 25 were 78 percent more likely than those over age 40 to be regular drowsy drivers.

• Drivers traveling alone were 81 percent more likely to nod off behind the wheel.

Drowsy driving crashes can occur at any time of the day. The AAA Foundation’s driver survey found that an equal number of drivers said they’d nodded off while driving between noon and 5 p.m. as between the wee hours of midnight and 6 a.m. While nighttime crashes that fall into the official "drowsy driving" category occur at twice the rate of those in the afternoon, AAA Foundation spokesman Dan Bleier says the number of daytime crashes may be underestimated.

“If drivers who crash during the day are less aware of their fatigue than the drivers who crash at night, then daytime crashes involving drowsiness could be more likely than nighttime crashes to be misclassified,” Bleier says.

More than half of drowsy driving crashes involve a single car that swerved in its lane or moved entirely out of its lane. Overall, 17 percent of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver, the AAA Foundation reports.

Signs that you may be a drowsy driver include:

• You have difficulty focusing on road hazards and react slowly to them.

• You’re nodding your head or blinking excessively.

• You have to turn up the radio or roll down a window to help concentrate.

• You’re drifting out of your lane or tailgating the car ahead of you.

• You’re missing exits and not able to read road signs clearly.

Drowsy driving and auto insurance

While the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver fatigue results in $12.5 billion in monetary losses, there’s no breakdown of what drowsy driving-related crashes cost in terms of auto insurance and medical bills.

Unlike drunken driving, "this is not an issue that is easy to track,” says Steve Witmer, a spokesman for American Family Insurance.

That’s partly because police reports don’t specify what role drowsy driving plays in a car accident. Every state addresses fatigue and sleepiness in some way on its standard forms for accident reports, but the classification of drowsy driving remains inconsistent.

“Not many police reports will specify whether drivers caused accidents because they were tired, were putting on mascara or something else they were doing behind the wheel,” says Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute. “That means insurance companies have a hard time separating out specific accidents caused by drowsy driving.”

So your rates won’t automatically go up if drive long distances, feel the weight of a stressful workload or have some other factor that could lead to drowsy driving. However, your rates will go up if those factors cause you to get into an auto accident.

Waking up behind the wheel

While every state has laws against drunken driving, only one state -- New Jersey -- has a law that prohibits motorists from driving while sleep-impaired. If he or she causes a traffic death, a drowsy driver in New Jersey can be prosecuted for vehicular homicide.

Automakers are taking the biggest steps to combat drowsy driving. The 2010 Toyota Prius and Lexus LS 600h offer a “Pre-Collision System” that uses an infrared camera to see whether the driver is looking forward when obstacles arise on the road, and if he is not, it flashes a red light and tugs on the driver’s seatbelt. Volvo offers a similar monitoring camera and alert system on its XC60 SUV. The 2010 Mercedes E-Class sedan features an Attention Assist system that detects driver fatigue and sounds an alert when the driver isn’t steering correctly in his lane.

But for now, these new alerts are available only with a few models and as optional packages that cost an extra $1,000 to $2,000. Furthermore, you’re not guaranteed safety discounts from your auto insurer for having these tools.

“For any sort of innovation like that, we need a demonstrated track record of it reducing accidents or injuries before we could assign a value and justify that discount,” American Family's Witmer says. “You can laud the innovation, but unless you can specifically attribute a result to it, it’s difficult to follow that up with an insurance discount.”

So for now, it’s up to you to avoid drowsy drivers on the road -- and to avoid being one yourself.

If you don't have high-tech innovations at your disposal, what should you do if you suspect you're a drowsy driver?

• Pull off the road for a nap.

• Drink coffee or a caffeinated beverage.

• Get out of the car to take a walk or exercise.

• Stop driving and get a full eight hours of sleep.

“The greatest recommendation for everyone on the road is to be aware and awake,” the AAA Foundation's Bleier says. “Gadgets may be helpful, but having the proper rest is the most fail-safe way to avoid drowsy driving.”

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