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Drowsy Driving: What the Experts Are Saying

January 23, 2015

An infographic depicting how alcohol and sleep deprivation affect driver perfomance in similar ways. Accident data indicate that nearly 6,000 lives are lost each year due to drowsy driving. Studies show that alcohol and sleep deprivation affect driver performance in similar ways, causing drivers to be inattentive and slower to react.

Dr. Stephen Popkin recently participated as an invited panelist at a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) forum where experts discussed the problem of drowsy driving and various countermeasures to address drowsy driving crashes. After experts characterized the magnitude of the problem, Dr. Popkin and his fellow panelists proposed potential countermeasures. Dr. Popkin is Volpe’s director of Safety Management and Human Factors.

Drowsy Driving Countermeasures

Driver Education

“Educating high-risk drivers about the importance of adequate sleep is an obvious countermeasure, but targeted communications campaigns aimed at high-risk groups, such as shift workers, will only succeed if the message resonates and if drivers make behavioral changes,” said Dr. Popkin.

Woman yawing while driving a car.“You need to make it about them and their decision to get more sleep,” said Dr. Popkin. “We need to build a community with a notable champion—someone people can relate to—who will convince drowsy drivers to make changes and get more sleep.”

Dr. Popkin identified former Secretary Ray LaHood and First Lady Michelle Obama as champions fighting distraction and obesity, respectively. They were successful because the population found them credible and easy to relate to, which caused people to make behavioral changes.

Laws and Enforcement

Laws against drunk driving have been successful and may work to reduce drowsy driving. The state of New Jersey considers a driver who has been awake for 24 hours to be a reckless driver and falls in the same class as an intoxicated driver. But unlike a drunk driver, there’s no road-side test to determine drowsiness, making it difficult to identify drowsy drivers without further research or technology.

Employer Policies and Programs

Workplace policies and practices can increase employee safety, and employers have a role in combatting drowsy driving, said Dr. Stephanie Pratt, of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and a panelist at the forum. Front-line supervisors can help their staff identify risks associated with drowsy driving, Pratt said. Managers can:

  • Question the need for travel
  • Seek safer modes for essential travel
  • Build flexibility into journey management policies
  • Limit driving after long flights

Supervisory involvement is key in identifying and implementing these countermeasures, which can lead to reductions in drowsy driving.

In-Vehicle Technology

The NTSB forum panelists also discussed in-vehicle technologies designed to mitigate drowsy driving by either detecting drowsiness or by helping drowsy drivers avoid crashes.

Some of these in-vehicle technologies work by analyzing drivers’ steering behavior and identifying steering patterns to calculate a drowsiness index. When the system detects a driver who is at risk of falling asleep, it sends a warning. 

These technologies—currently available or still under development—need to undergo testing to determine user acceptance and effectiveness.

Next Steps

While the forum panelists agreed that these countermeasures are promising, more research is needed to evaluate the viability of each alternative as a successful countermeasure. Benchmarking the return on investment for countermeasures can only be accomplished if organizations coordinate research efforts and obtain more reliable data on the scope of the problem.

Better information is needed on the scope of the factors contributing to drowsy driving, said Mark Rosenkind, the presiding NTSB member and now administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Effective countermeasures are needed along with a fundamental change in American culture, which begins with sleep. Drowsy driving habits are deeply rooted in an American culture that associates sleeplessness with the virtue of hard work.

“At the end of the day, we can have education programs, rules, and technology to mitigate drowsy driving, but if people aren’t buying in and making the decision to get enough sleep, the countermeasures won’t work,” said Dr. Popkin.

The NTSB forum Awake, Alert, Alive: Overcoming the Dangers of Drowsy Driving was held in Washington, D.C., on October 21. For more information about this forum, visit NTSB’s website.

Updated: Friday, January 23, 2015
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