The Teen Driving Danger No One is Talking About

Turns out driving drowsy can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence. So why aren't more people talking about the problem?

teen driving danger

The drive across Western Kansas along I-70 is not a thrilling one. I’m speaking from experience here—in college, two girlfriends and I made our way westward to Denver for a weekend trip. On the drive home, both of the girls dozed, and I listened to music. On about the fourth hour of my leg, I started feeling a buzzing around my eyes, and a heaviness in my head. It was unmistakable, and the first time I’d ever experienced it: serious drowsiness while driving. I tried to roll down the window, but even that didn’t help. So a few miles later, I woke my best friend up and gave her the bad news: She’d have to take over, unless she wanted me to run us off the road.

Drowsy Driving is as Dangerous as Driving Drunk

Driving drowsy is something many of us have experienced personally but it just doesn’t attract the kind of media attention devoted to driving under the influence. Three Zebra employees responded to Quoted‘s query with equally horrifying near misses or accidents related to drowsy driving: Our licensed insurance agent Neil Richardson wrecked his truck on the way to to the SAT in high school, hitting a guard rail and waking up mid-spin, totally confused.

Driving drowsy is a dangerous—and prevalant—problem. “While the dangers of drinking and driving are widely recognized, drowsy driving is a less known peril with parallel risks,” explains the National Sleep Foundation. “Cognitive impairment after approximately 18 hours awake is similar to that of someone with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05 percent. Cognitive impairment after 24 hours awake is equivalent to a BAC of 0.10 percent, which is higher than the legal limit in the U.S.”

Just in case you missed that: Pulling one all-nighter and then driving is the equivalent of driving legally drunk.

road trip shot for drowsy

A Serious Problem—Especially for Teens

Would you believe 36 percent of Americans have fallen asleep at the wheel while driving? According to a 2008 Sleep in America poll, it’s true. In that same poll, more than 60 percent of Americans admitted to driving a vehicle while feeling drowsy. And the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that 12.5 percent of fatal crashes are caused by drowsy driving.

Once you focus in on teens, the numbers get even more troubling: About 60 percent of sleep-related crashes to drivers younger than 30 years old. The reason why: Demands of both school and jobs, extracurricular activities, late-night socializing, and poor sleep habits can prevent young drivers from getting sufficient sleep, and lead to trouble on the road.

Pulling an all-nighter and then driving is like driving drunk.

What a Common Sleep-Related Incident Looks Like:

The Journal of the American Medicine Association explains that sleep-related crashes:

  • Tend to occur after midnight and in the mid-afternoon, which correspond with the 2 circadian periods of sleepiness and lowered performance (1-6am and 2-4pm)
  • Occur more often on high-speed roads (speed limits over 55 mph)
  • Sleepy drivers are less likely to take evasive action to avoid a crash
  • Sleepy drivers are usually alone in the vehicle

Solutions for Drowsy Driving

So what can be done? Of course the safest, and really only option we can recommend in good faith, is to find a way to stop driving all together. Find a rest-stop; take a few minutes—it’s not worth the risk. Other common strategies (again via the AMA) include:

  • Increasing your alertness—open a window to let in cold air, listen to the radio, or take an exercise break—are of marginal benefit and less effective than taking caffeine and a brief nap, both of which do not replace the need for the body to get the rest it needs.
  • Rumble strips are easy & cost effective, but often only wake drivers up for a short period of time until the road no longer has rumble strips.
  • Providing adequate rest stops could be effective in encouraging drivers to take a break.
  • Physicians should encourage good sleep habits, recognize and treat sleep-related problems, and counsel patients about the risks of driving while sleepy.