We are familiar with the hazards of drinking and driving or even texting and driving, but many people underestimate the dangers of drowsy driving. Each year, drowsy driving accounts for about 100,000 crashes, 71,000 injuries, and 1,550 fatalities, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). Drowsy driving contributes to an estimated 9.5% of all crashes, according to AAA.
However, the actual number may be much higher as it is difficult to determine whether a driver was drowsy at the time of a crash. In many cases, drowsy driving is as dangerous as driving while impaired by alcohol.
In this article:
- Key drowsy driving statistics
- What is drowsy driving?
- Drowsy driving statistics 2021
- Historical drowsy driving statistics
- Drowsy driving risk factors
- Driver fatigue warning signs
- The consequences of drowsy driving
- How to prevent drowsy driving
Key drowsy driving statistics
How many accidents are caused by drowsy driving?
- Drowsy driving accounts for about 100,000 crashes annually on the roadway, 71,000 injuries, and 1,550 fatalities per year (NSC)
- Drowsy driving contributes to an estimated 9.5% of all crashes, and 10.8% of those that involved airbag deployment (AAA)
- Drowsy driving mimics alcohol-impaired driving — 18 hours without sleep is similar to a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .05% (CDC)
How often do people drive while drowsy?
- About 27% of drivers report driving while being so tired they have difficulty keeping their eyes open (AAA)
- 1 in 25 drivers admit to falling asleep behind the wheel (CDC)
- 47% of those who have nodded off while driving did so on a trip lasting one hour or less (NHTSA)
When does drowsy driving happen?
- Most drowsy driving crashes occur between midnight and 6am or later on in the afternoon when the body regulates sleep (NHTSA)
- Drowsy driving crashes often only involve a single passenger running off the road (NHTSA)
- Drowsy driving crashes are more common on highways and rural roads (NHTSA)
What is drowsy driving?
Drowsy driving, also known as driver fatigue or tired driving, is the act of driving or operating a motor vehicle while tired and feeling fatigued or sleepy. Job stress or interrupted nights with young children are common reasons to be short on sleep.
However, other factors can contribute to drowsy driving, such as a medication you are taking or an untreated sleep disorder that leaves 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 judgment, inability to judge distances and speeds, and, of course, falling asleep.
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. According to the CDC 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, drowsy driving is similar to drunk driving.
Some groups, in particular, are more susceptible to drowsy driving, including teenagers and young men in their 20s and 30s, who tend to fall asleep while driving late at night. Drowsy driving accidents in this group most commonly occur between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.
Seniors are another group more likely to have accidents relating to drowsy driving, with older adults involved in more accidents in the middle of the afternoon.
Drowsy driving statistics 2021
It’s clear drowsy driving is prevalent in the U.S. today, but nailing down the actual number of drowsy driving-related accidents can be difficult.
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 percent of all crashes examined and 10.8 percent of crashes that included airbag deployment, injury or significant property damage.
How common is drowsy driving?
The CDC’s study of almost 150,000 adult drivers across 19 states and Washington, D.C. reveals some interesting insights. About 4 percent 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 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 most recent official data for drowsy driving is from the NHTSA, reporting the leading factors at play in fatal crashes:
Fatal crash driver factors
|Factor||Number of Fatal Crashes||Percentage of Fatal Crashes|
|Driving too fast||8,596||16.7%|
|Under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication||5,175||10.1%|
|Failure to keep in Proper Lane||3,706||7.2%|
|Failure to Yield Right of Way||3,579||7%|
|Distracted (phone, talking, eating, object, etc.)||2,688||5.2%|
|Operating vehicle in a careless manner||2,797||5.4%|
|Failure to Obey traffic signs, signals, or officer||1,990||3.9%|
|Erratic, reckless, careless, or negligent driving||1,955||3.8%|
|Swerving or avoiding due to weather, object, motorist, etc.||1,176||2.3%|
|Driving the wrong way||1,243||2.4%|
Historical drowsy driving statistics
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 percent in 2019 from 2018, with drowsy driving deaths accounting for just 1.2 percent of total fatalities that year.
|Year||Drivers involved in fatal crashes who were drowsy||Percentage of all drivers involved in fatal crashes||Fatalities involving drowsy driving|
Today, the world moves faster than ever, with the rise of digital development pushing us to move quicker and rest less. Poor sleep is a common problem, with 25 percent of U.S. adults suffering from insufficient levels of sleep and rest each day.
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 regarding drowsy driving, with about 96 percent identifying the trend as extremely dangerous and more than 97 percent 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 percent admit to having fallen asleep within the last year.
While American drivers seem to know that driving while drowsy is wrong, less than 30 percent believed that drivers drive tired even though 24 percent freely admit to falling asleep behind the wheel in the last month alone. That sharp contradiction makes a pronounced statement about driver attitudes versus driver behavior, undoubtedly contributing to the number of accidents attributed to drowsy driving each year.
Drowsy driving risk factors
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 morning hours, the middle of the afternoon and late at night, when the body is generally at rest.|
|Speed||Accidents tend to be both more frequent and more severe when higher speeds are involved, which is 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 is very easy for the average driver to become a statistic.
Drowsy driving by age
Overall, drowsy driving is something that all age groups experience but is most common overall for adults aged 46 – 64, with 42 percent of respondents reporting ever having nodded off behind the wheel. When asked if they’ve nodded off in the last week, all age groups responded the same, except ages 21 – 29, who were twice as likely as other age groups to have nodded off behind the wheel in the last week.
Drowsy driving by gender
Drowsy driving behavior tends to skew slightly more male, with 46 percent of males ever having nodded off while driving as opposed to 26 percent of females.
Drowsy driving by time of day
Unsurprisingly, drowsy driving is more likely at night. Almost half of all drowsy driving episodes happen between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. With that said, 26 percent of respondents said they had nodded off while driving between noon and 5 p.m. When it comes to safe driving, it is important not to ignore the dangers of drowsy driving, even during the daytime.
Drowsy driving by length of drive
When it comes to the length of drive that causes drivers to nod off, you may think that the longer the drive, the more likely the drowsy driving behavior. Interestingly enough, 30 percent of drivers report nodding off on a drive shorter than one hour.
Driver fatigue warning signs
Specific drowsiness indicators signal 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 do not ignore your body’s signals that it is tired.
Who are the at-risk groups for drowsy driving?
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 had less time on the road, so their skills are not developed 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 when it comes time to clock out, they are typically exhausted. A long drive home is the last thing 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. Professionals who often work grueling shifts can include doctors, nurses, pilots, police officers and firefighters.
Those who drive for a living put more miles on the road than the average commuter. Commercial drivers are also at much higher risk of drowsy driving, given the long hours and unforgiving deadlines that many commercial drivers face.
Those who travel the country regularly for business are at particular risk of drowsy driving, as they are often subjected to jet lag, changing time zones as often as ZIP codes. If you travel extensively for work, it can be challenging to get enough sleep to be safe on the road.
People with sleep conditions
Drowsy driving can be an everyday battle for drivers with sleep disorders. 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.
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 avoided with just a little effort.
The consequences of drowsy driving can be pretty severe. Assuming you survive your accident, you could still walk away with significant injuries that could require months or even years of medical care. You could also suffer from long-lasting cognitive or physical impairments that can impact your 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. Additionally, the study notes that property damages are not even included in this cost.
Drowsy driving laws by state
In 2021, just two states — New Jersey and Arkansas — have written legislation that expressly acknowledges drowsy driving. These drowsy driving laws come into effect when an injury or fatality stems from a drowsy driver.
Under New Jersey’s statute, 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 in the same class as an intoxicated driver. The law sends a clear message to drivers that the effects of drowsy driving should 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 over 24 consecutive hours.|
|New Jersey||2C: 11-5(a)
|Illegal to drive “while knowingly fatigued,” with fatigued defined as “being without sleep for a period over 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 to determine how best to leverage drowsy driving measures across 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.
Drivers with untreated sleep disorders in California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa or Maine can obtain a special driver’s license.
How drowsy driving impacts car insurance
There is no law against drowsy driving in most states, so car insurance premiums are not typically affected by the practice. You cannot be penalized if there is no violation.
When drowsy driving is treated like reckless driving, however, drivers can receive a ticket, which can affect car insurance premiums because it will show up on their driving record when they shop for a new car insurance policy. Accidents caused by drowsy driving can also affect rates significantly.
There are many factors that impact your insurance premium, including location, age, miles driven annually, credit score and, in particular, driving record.
|Average cost of car insurance||Average cost of car insurance after a drowsy driving infraction||Dollar increase after a drowsy driving infraction||Percentage increase after a drowsy driving infraction|
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. If you are a shift worker, be sure to get plenty of sleep by initiating a sleep schedule to 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 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. Rest stops or well-lit parking lots 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, consider seeing a medical professional for possible solutions.
- Organize a carpool.
The most common time for drowsy driving is driving to and from work. Beat the fatigue by traveling with company, such as a friend, a family member or a coworker. Your commuter companion can help out by watching for fatigue signs and even taking 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 later.
- 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 ways to occupy yourself on a long, lonely road. Before you hit the road, explore 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 when you would typically be sleeping to help ensure your internal body clock does not interfere with your focus while you are driving.
- Skip the alcohol.
Even a tiny amount of alcohol can make you feel drowsy while driving, so instead, skip the booze and opt for water. Caffeine can be a useful stimulant but is only ideal for short-term use and will not 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 buckle up every time.