We are familiar with the hazards of drinking and driving, or even texting and driving, but many people underestimate the dangers of drowsy driving. It’s an issue commonly associated with truck drivers, bus drivers and the many other professionals who frequent America’s roadways for a living.
However, the truth is that drowsy driving can happen anywhere and to anyone, no matter what you do for a living or how often you are behind the wheel. Studies show that drowsy driving is a significant factor in not only commercial trucking and rail collisions, but in motor vehicle collisions, too.
Drowsy driving is a silent killer on America’s roads, but like anything else, change first begins with education. This is the current state of drowsy driving in 2021.
Drowsy driving statistics
- Over 100,000 accidents were due to drowsy driving in 2019, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
- In 2013, the NHTSA estimates there were 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths from drowsy driving.
- About half of all U.S. adult drivers admit to driving even when they feel tired.
- Of drivers 18 and older, an estimated 1 in 25 admit to having fallen asleep behind the wheel.
Drowsy driving: what you need to know
The effects of drowsy driving are more severe than most people realize.
When you are awake for more than 18 hours, the effect on your body is the same as if you had a BAC of 0.05 percent. After 24 hours awake, it’s like having a BAC of 0.10 percent, which far exceeds the legal limit in all states. Considering the legal blood alcohol content (BAC) limit is 0.08 percent, it means that drowsy driving has the same effect on driver impairments as drunk driving.
Some groups in particular are more susceptible to drowsy driving. This includes teenagers and young men in their 20s and 30s, who tend to fall asleep while driving late at night. These accidents most commonly occur between 11 pm and 8 am.
Seniors are another group that is more likely to have accidents relating to drowsy driving, with older adults involved in more accidents in the middle of the afternoon.
Table of contents
- Intro + key takeaway statistics
- Drowsy driving statistics
- What you need to know about falling asleep while driving
- What is drowsy driving?
- Driver fatigue warning signs
- Drowsy driving statistics 2021
- Drowsy driving over time
- Risk factors
- How common is drowsy driving?
- The consequences of drowsy driving
- Drowsy driving laws state by state
- How drowsy driving impacts car insurance rates
- How to prevent drowsy driving
What is drowsy driving
Drowsy driving is the act of driving or operating a motor vehicle while tired and feeling fatigued or sleepy. Stress of your job or interrupted nights with young children are common reasons to be short on sleep.
However, drowsiness can also come from other factors, as well. It can be a side effect from a medication you are taking or the cause of an untreated sleep disorder that is leaving you depleted and unable to stay awake during the day. Late-night and third-shift workers are particularly affected by the natural release of melatonin associated with dark hours, as they journey home after a long shift.
The main effects of drowsy driving are the inability to focus, delayed reaction times, poor judgement, inability to judge distances and speeds, and, of course, falling asleep.
Whatever the reason, drowsy driving is incredibly dangerous because it dulls your senses and slows response times, as well as causing you to be less alert than you need to be. Sleepy drivers have slower reaction times, and with a lack of awareness, they are less prepared when it comes to sudden or evasive action. In the worst cases, a driver may fall asleep behind the wheel, inevitably coming to a stop when the driver either awakens or crashes into something — like another vehicle.
Driver fatigue warning signs
There are certain indications of drowsiness that you may feel, signaling that you should refrain from driving until you have had more sleep. However, driver fatigue may not always show itself in the same form, making it harder for some to detect.
Key warning signs of drowsy driving include:
- You can’t seem to keep your eyes focused.
- You can’t keep your eyes open and keep blinking.
- Your head suddenly feels unbearably heavy.
These symptoms are particularly dangerous because they are so common, but it is critical that you don’t ignore your body’s signals that it is tired.
Drowsy driving statistics 2021
It’s clear drowsy driving is prevalent in the U.S. today, but nailing down an actual number of drowsy driving-related accidents can be difficult to ascertain.
“While official statistics from the U.S. government indicate that only approximately 1%–2% of all motor vehicle crashes involve drowsy driving, many studies suggest that the true scope of the problem is likely to be much greater,” writes the AAA Foundation in its 2018 study.
Instead, the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) relies upon witness testimony, in addition to police and hospital records. There has been no quantifiable measure to determine precisely how many accidents are caused — at least in part — by drowsy driving.
Drivers readily admit to driving while tired, motivated by pressures from work, family and social demands. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in its survey of more than 3,500 drivers that drowsiness was a contributing factor in up to 9.5% of all crashes examined and 10.8% of crashes that included airbag deployment, injury or significant property damage.
Meanwhile, while NHTSA reports that deaths associated with drowsy driving are down, there were still 697 fatalities in 2019 from drowsy driving.
Drowsy driving over time
Today, the world is moving faster than ever with the rise of digital development in the tech world, pushing us to move faster and to rest less. Poor sleep health is a regular problem, with 25% percent of U.S. adults suffering from insufficient levels of sleep and rest each day.
In fact, Americans have shown a marked decrease in sleep and rest within the last 30 years. The odds of being a short sleeper, or someone who sleeps less than six hours each night, have increased dramatically.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in 2019 that the vast majority of Americans share disapproving attitudes when it comes to drowsy driving, with about 96% identifying the trend as extremely dangerous and more than 97% voicing their disapproval.
Surveys by the National Sleep Foundation echo these findings, with U.S. drivers sharing similar sentiments. In its report, half of American adults admit to driving while feeling tired, and about 20% admit to having fallen asleep within the last year.
While American drivers seem to know that driving while drowsy is wrong, less than 30% believed that drivers drive tired even though 24% freely admit to having fallen asleep behind the wheel in the last month alone. That sharp contradiction makes a pronounced statement about driver attitudes versus driver behavior, no doubt contributing to the number of accidents attributed to drowsy driving each year.
However, whether it’s the result of improved education or new safety technology, the number of incidents associated with drowsy driving is decreasing. According to the NHTSA, drowsy driving-related fatalities were down 11.2% in 2019 from 2018, with drowsy driving deaths accounting for just 1.2% of total fatalities that year.
Drowsy driving accidents – III
|Year||Drowsy driving accidents|
Drowsy driving deaths – NHTSA
|Year||Drowsy driving deaths|
Some risk factors can work against tired drivers, increasing your chances of an accident related to drowsy driving.
Risk factors associated with drowsy driving
|Time of day||Accidents are most common in the early hours of the morning, the middle of the afternoon, and late at night. These are times when the body is normally at rest.|
|Speed||Accidents tend to be both more frequent and more severe when higher speeds are involved. That’s why crashes on highways are so common.|
|Driver habits and behavior||Studies show that drowsy drivers brake less, severely hampering their ability to avoid an accident. Many times, cars veer off the road and end up in embankments or wrapped around surrounding objects.|
You don’t have to be a habitual offender to become the victim of a drowsy driving incident. Just one night of poor sleep is enough to bring terrible consequences, and it’s very easy for the average driver to become a statistic.
Driver Risk Factors – AAA Foundation
|Driver Age||Number of Crashes||Driver Rated Drowsy (%)|
|16 to 19||158||8.9%|
|20 to 24||160||11.3%|
|25 to 34||63||7.9%|
|35 to 49||35||11.4%|
|50 to 64||59||1.7%|
|65 to 74||39||12.8%|
|Gender||Number of Crashes||Driver Rated Drowsy (%)|
By Time of Day
|Lighting Conditions||Number of Crashes||Driver Rated Drowsy (%)|
By Crash Severity
|Crash Severity||Number of Crashes||Driver Rated Drowsy (%)|
Drowsy driving and your occupation
Drowsy driving can happen to anyone, but it does affect some groups more than others. These drivers that are at a higher risk of drowsy driving include:
- Young and inexperienced drivers
Teens and young drivers have less time on the road, so their skills are not as developed with less experience behind the wheel. Younger drivers are also more likely to drive during late hours for work or social reasons, making them more susceptible to drowsy driving.
- Shift workers and those with extended hours
Shift and night workers are often subject to long hours on the clock, and often when it comes time to clock out, they are typically exhausted. A long drive home is the last thing that they need, but many still trudge to their cars out of obligation and routine, anyway. Those who work night, rotating, or double shifts have six times the risk of drowsy driving than other types of workers. This includes professionals like doctors, nurses, pilots, police officers and firefighters.
- Commercial drivers
Those who drive for a living put more miles on the road than the average commuter. It also puts these drivers at a much higher risk of drowsy driving, given the long hours and unforgiving deadlines that many commercial drivers face.
- Business travelers
Those who travel the country regularly for business purposes are at particular risk of drowsy driving. These drivers are often subject to jet lag, changing time zones as often as ZIP codes. If you travel extensively for work, it can be difficult to get enough sleep to be safe on the road.
Sleep conditions and drowsy driving
Drowsy driving can be a common fight for drivers with sleep disorders. Battles with narcolepsy or insomnia can leave some drivers feeling depleted and tired during the day, while those with untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are categorically more at-risk of drowsy driving.
Some medications can also be counter-effective, making drivers sleepy when they need to be focused behind the wheel.
How common is drowsy driving?
It’s hard to say when there’s no definite, quantifiable measure in which to gauge driver drowsiness for all drivers. In the meantime, studies differ.
NHTSA faults drowsy driving in more than 100,000 motor-vehicle crashes. In addition to about 71,000 non-fatal injuries, drowsy driving also accounts for over 1,500 deaths annually. The price tag for all of that damage is estimated to be about $12.5 billion.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found in its study that over a three-year period, drowsy driving was a factor in up to 9.5% of accidents. Almost 11% of those crashes were severe enough to require the assistance of the police.
NHTSA estimates are far more conservative, blaming driver drowsiness for just 1.4% of national police-reported crashes, 2% of all crashes resulting in injuries, and 2.4% of crashes resulting in a death between 2011 and 2015.
The CDC shares a study of almost 150,000 adult drivers across 19 states and Washington, D.C. that reveals some interesting insights. About 4% of adults admitted to falling asleep while driving within the previous 30 days. Meanwhile, those drivers who slept less than six hours each night or were subject to snoring were found to be much more likely to fall asleep while driving. An estimated one in 25 drivers 18 and older have fallen asleep within the last 30 days.
The NHTSA offers modest estimates for drowsy driving in 2013:
- 72,000 crashes
- 44,000 injuries
However, it acknowledges that drowsy driving-related crashes are likely underrepresented for as much as 6,000 fatal crashes.
Risk Factors For Drivers And Motorcycle Operators
|Reason||Number of Fatal Crashes||Percentage of Fatal Crashes|
|Speeding or racing||8,596||16.7%|
|Under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication||5,175||10.1%|
|Drowsy, asleep, fatigued, ill, or blacked out||1,221||2.4%|
The consequences of drowsy driving
The most expensive cost of drowsy driving is the human toll that it takes each year. With over 100,000 crashes attributed to drowsy driving, future accidents can easily be thwarted with just a little effort.
The consequences of drowsy driving can be quite severe. Assuming you survive your accident, you could still walk away with significant injuries that could require months or even years of medical care. Drivers can suffer from long-lasting cognitive or physical impairments that can impact their performance and physical health.
In an August 2016 report, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) estimates that the annual societal cost of drowsy driving is $109 billion. However, the study notes that property damages are not included within this cost.
Drowsy driving laws by state
In 2021, there are just two states — New Jersey and Arkansas — that have written legislation that expressly acknowledges drowsy driving. These laws come into effect when there is either an injury or fatality that stems from a drowsy driver.
Under New Jersey Statutes §2C:11-5, drowsy driving is considered the same as reckless driving. Any person who operates a motor vehicle with less than 24 hours of sleep is charged within the same class as an intoxicated driver. It sends a clear message to drivers that drowsy driving is a serious risk to be taken seriously, just like drunk driving.
State Drowsy Driving Laws
|State||Drowsy driving law||Law Details|
|Arkansas||Arkansas Code 5-10-105(a)(1)(D) and (c)(1)||Illegal to drive while knowingly fatigued “or in the state of being asleep” with fatigued defined as being without sleep for a period in excess of 24 consecutive hours|
|New Jersey||2C: 11-5(a)
|Illegal to drive “while knowingly fatigued as recklessness” with fatigued defined as “being without sleep for a period in excess of 24 consecutive hours.”|
While Arkansas and New Jersey are the only two states to enact actual laws, other states are still taking measures to eliminate drowsy driving within their jurisdictions.
State Awareness Initiatives
|Alabama||SJR 71||2016||November 19|
|California||SCR 27||2005||April 6|
|Florida||Fla. Law Ch. 223
“Ronshay Dugans Act”
|2010||First week of September|
|Texas||HR 1389||2013||November 6 – 12|
|Utah||—||2014||Third week in August|
Additionally, states like Utah, Ohio and New York continue to commission studies so they can determine how best to leverage drowsy driving measures among state roadways. In Michigan, the Office of Highway Safety Planning offers the annual publication, “Michigan Traffic Crash Facts,” to educate drivers on the dangers of drowsy driving.
If you live in certain states, you can obtain a special driver’s license for drivers with untreated sleep disorders. California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa and Maine are all states that offer this modified license.
How drowsy driving impacts car insurance
In most states, there is no law against drowsy driving, so car insurance premiums are not typically affected. You cannot be penalized if there is no violation.
When drowsy driving is treated like reckless driving, however, drivers can receive a ticket. The violation can also affect your car insurance because it is reported on your driver’s record and seen by insurance companies when you shop for a new car insurance policy. Accidents caused by drowsy driving can also affect your rates significantly.
There are many rate factors that impact how much you are charged for your auto insurance policy. These include where you live, how old you are, how much you drive each year, your credit score and, in particular, your driving record.
Texting and driving has become a serious and growing problem among U.S. drivers, which as we have seen, can lead to a significantly higher level of risk on the road. To offset this additional risk, many car insurance companies increase rates if accidents, DUIs or other risky driving behavior is associated with the driver.
To ensure you receive the best rate on your car insurance, be sure to check rates and compare coverage from multiple providers.
How to prevent drowsy driving
We have all felt tired behind the wheel, but these are some tips to help you stay alert and remain safe, no matter when you have to drive.
- Practice healthy sleep habits.
The best defense against drowsy driving is enough sleep at night. If you are a shift worker or otherwise, be sure to get plenty of sleep by initiating a sleep schedule that you follow every day. The recommended amount for adults is a minimum of seven hours of sleep, while at least eight are recommended for teens. Rest is especially critical when you know that there is a long drive ahead.
- Take a 10 minute power nap
Finding a safe place to pull over and sleep for even just 10 minutes can provide immediate improvement in your ability to remain alert for the remainder of the drive. If a rest stop or well-lit parking lot is nearby, those are great options for a quick nap.
- Ask for help
It’s okay to ask for help when you need it. If you are having trouble sleeping each night, consider seeing a medical professional for possible solutions that can help.
- Organize a carpool
The most common time for drowsy driving is when a driver is driving to and from work. Instead, beat the fatigue by traveling with company, whether that is a friend, a family member or a coworker. Your commuter companion can help out by watching for signs of fatigue and even take the wheel if necessary.
- Watch your medications
Some medications can cause fatigue, making you feel drowsy even when you are well-rested. Talk to your doctor about potential side effects, and be sure to check labels before taking any medications. If you can, avoid taking your medication before you have to drive and instead opt to take it at a later time.
- Add some stimuli
Opening a window can give you some much-needed fresh air, or opt for a blast of the A/C to help awaken dull senses. The sound and feel of the air will help keep you awake if you feel yourself starting to nod off.
- Find entertainment
There are many different things you can use to keep yourself occupied on a long, lonely road. Before you hit the road, explore your options for different audiobooks or podcasts. If you prefer music, turn on a favorite soundtrack or find a new album from an upcoming artist.
- Plan driving times
If you can afford to be picky about when you drive, try to plan your trip around times when you would normally be sleeping. This will help ensure that your internal body clock doesn’t interfere with your focus while you are driving.
- Skip the alcohol
Even a small amount of alcohol can make you feel drowsy while driving, so instead, skip the booze and opt for water instead. Caffeine can be a useful stimulant but is only ideal for short-term use, as it will be unable to sustain you for extended periods.
- Always use your seat belt
Seat belt use is proven to save lives each day on the road. The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your passengers on the road is to buckle up every time.