The Dangers of Drowsy Driving

Far too many drivers don’t realize that driving while sleep impaired (drowsy driving) can be just as dangerous as impaired driving. Driving while sleep impaired (drowsy driving) can be just as dangerous and irresponsible as choosing to drive while drunk. Except most people don’t realize it.

I have seen many accidents where people have fallen asleep at the wheel and caused horrific accidents, which sometimes result in serious injury to the occupants of the car, including his or her own family and children.

I had a case years ago where a family of 4 were driving in the early morning through the Okanagan on their way to a vacation. Another driver, just off of night shift, fell asleep 5 minutes from work on his way home, drifted into the oncoming lane, and hit the car with the family head on. The mother, father and young son were killed instantly, and the surviving young daughter suffered a severe brain injury. She also had to cope with the loss of her entire family.

Drowsy driving is impaired driving, plain and simple.

Some Facts and Stats about Drowsy Driving

  • Researchers have found that being awake for 19 hours causes impairment comparable to having a BAC of .05%. Being awake for 24 hours increases impairment to being comparable to having a BAC of .10%.
  • According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, nine of 10 police officers surveyed reported stopping a driver who they believed was drunk but turned out to be drowsy.
  • The Sleep Research Society tells us that Data collected by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicate that 80,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel every day in the U.S. Every two minutes, a drowsy driver causes a motor vehicle crash.
  • In a landmark 2006 study, the Institute of Medicine estimated that 20 percent of all serious injuries from motor vehicle crashes were caused by drowsy driving.
  • An independent NHTSA video observational study similarly demonstrated that 22 percent of all motor vehicle crashes and near misses were caused by drowsy driving.
  • Tragically, two thirds of these drowsy driving crashes occur in young people, just at the prime of their lives.
  • According to the Institutes of Medicine (IOM) nearly 20% of all serious injury crashes involve drowsy driving.

It’s not always easy to tell when you’re too tired to drive. Here are some signs that it’s time to pull over:

  • Daydreaming; wandering/disconnected thoughts
  • Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
  • Yawning repeatedly or rubbing your eyes
  • Trouble remembering the last few miles driven; missing exits or traffic signs
  • Trouble keeping your head up
  • Drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
  • Feeling restless and irritable

The Effects of Drowsy Driving

Drowsy drivers suffer from many impairments, including:

  • Decreased reaction time
  • Impaired judgement
  • Impaired vision
  • Decreased awareness
  • Difficulty with information processing
  • Poor short-term memory
  • Increased aggressive behaviors
  • Irritability

Not only does fatigue impair your judgement when you are behind the wheel, it impairs your ability to recognize when you are too tired to drive.


  • The best way to make sure your mind and body are in optimal driving shape is to plan ahead, and get 7-8 hours of sleep before your drive.
  • Don’t drive between midnight and 6 a.m. Because of your body’s biological rhythm, this is a time when sleepiness is most intense.
  • The pre-drive nap: taking a short nap before a road trip can help make up for a short night’s sleep.
  • The mid-drive nap: if you find yourself drowsy while driving, pull over to take a short nap of 20 minutes. Make sure you are in a safe location and remember you’ll be groggy for 15 minutes or so after waking up.
  • The Buddy system: It’s safest to drive with a partner on long trips. Pull over every two hours and switch drivers, while the other takes a nap if possible.
  • Do not drink alcohol. Even very small amounts of alcohol will enhance drowsiness.
  • Don’t rush. Better to arrive at your destination safe than on time.
  • Drink caffeine: caffeine improves alertness, although be aware that the effects of caffeine will wear off after several hours.
  • Move when you get tired. Pull over, get out and stretch your legs. You’re sitting for extended periods of time and you need to move around to keep your blood flowing; this keeps your energy up.
  • Crank up the volume of your music if necessary. Music affects your mood which, in turn, affects your fatigue level. If you’re feeling a little sleepy or even down, listen to some lively music that you can sing along with.
  • Open your windows and let the oxygen flow. This works particularly well if it’s toasty warm in your car and cold outside. Like diving into cold water, cold air gives your system a temporary jolt, shocking your sense into alertness

Residual Effects of Sleep Medication on Driving Abilities the Next day

Sleep experts warn that people should exercise caution before deciding to take medication to help them sleep. Health officials are concerned that medication levels can remain high enough in the blood that people can have trouble driving the next morning.

See this article on the residual effects of sleep medications on driving ability the next day: Residual Effects of Sleep Medical on Driving Ability.

What You Can Do

Do not drive while sleep impaired.

Follow the above tips for staying awake.

And consider sending this article to your children, family, and friends to warn them of the dangers, and how to minimize them.

Paul Mitchell, a BC personal injury lawyer who has extensive experience with severe injury claims, including brain injury claims, spinal injury claims, death claims, ICBC claims, and other catastrophic injury claims. He acts for injured clients all over BC and Alberta, and will not act for ICBC or any other insurance company.

For more information on this article, or for a confidential discussion of your personal injury claim, contact Paul Mitchell, Q.C. at 250-869-1115 (direct line), or send him a confidential email at [email protected]

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