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Drowsy driving factoring into traffic deaths

Drowsy driving factoring into traffic deaths
© Greg Nash

Drowsy driving can have deadly consequences similar to drunken or distracted driving, and tired motorists are responsible for thousands of traffic fatalities every year, according to a new report from an auto safety group.

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a report Monday that found drowsy driving causes an average of 328,000 annual crashes, 109,000 injuries and 6,400 deaths on U.S. roadways.

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Although the problem often receives less attention than driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, the GHSA warns that sleeplessness can have a similar effect on drivers.

Driving 21 hours without sleep is the equivalent of having a blood alcohol content of .08 percent, which is the legal limit, while driving 24 hours without sleep is similar to .10 percent.

The report, which was funded through a grant from insurance company State Farm, follows a 7.7 percent increase in U.S. motor vehicle deaths in 2015.

Safety officials acknowledge that the pervasiveness of drowsy driving is not fully known, because it is difficult to diagnose and track.

But the report estimates that tired drivers are involved in somewhere between 2 percent and 20 percent of all traffic fatalities.

“There are challenges associated with both measuring and combating drowsy driving,” said GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins. “Law enforcement lack protocols and training to help officers recognize drowsy driving at roadside. And if a crash occurs, the drowsy driver may not report the cause due to concerns about monetary and other penalties.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has expanded its definition of “impaired driving” to include drowsy driving, found that the annual societal cost of fatigue-related crashes is $109 billion.

More than half of all drowsy driving crashes involve teens and young adults. But people with sleep disorders and those who work nights or irregular shifts are more likely to get behind the wheel when they are too tired to drive.

The report also found that the crashes often occur on rural roads and highways, where there can be “long, monotonous stretches of blacktop.”

“Sleep is a restorative and life-sustaining activity that is just as important as eating right and exercising. When we skimp on sleep, we’re less able to react quickly – a critical element of safe driving,” said report author Pam Fischer. “Just like drunk driving and seat belts, it’s going to take all of us to get the public to recognize the seriousness of drowsy driving,”

The GHSA is recommending that state highway safety offices team up with schools, businesses and nonprofits to overhaul how the oft-neglected problem is addressed.

A number of states are already taking steps to prevent drowsy driving. Iowa convened the first-ever statewide summit on the issue, while Utah displays highway signs that warn motorists about the dangers of driving while tired, according to the report.