Drowsy driving study: Even mild sleep deprivation raises risk of crashes

New research shows that even mild sleep deprivation, which is a common problem for drivers, can harm driving performance and lead to accidents.

Fatigue can have many adverse effects on a person's cognitive abilities and performance at challenging tasks, such as driving. Drowsy individuals may exhibit reduced alertness, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, impaired judgment and slower response times. All of these handicaps can greatly increase the risk of serious or injurious motor vehicle accidents.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research has shown that drivers who have remained awake for at least 24 hours are more impaired than those who are legally drunk. Worrisomely, a new study now suggests that even mild sleep deprivation may put people in New York at serious risk for car accidents.

Study conclusions

The study, which was conducted by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, utilized accident data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The researchers looked at police-reported crashes serious enough to require emergency medical personnel on site or towing of at least one involved vehicle. Information about sleep deprivation was based on reports from the involved drivers regarding their sleep patterns over the 24 hours preceding the crash.

The researchers found that just a few hours of lost sleep can greatly raise a person's likelihood of playing a role in a car accident. Compared to people who slept seven hours during the prior 24 hours, people who slept five or six hours were twice as likely to be involved in car crashes. People who slept four or five hours were four times likelier to experience accidents. This is similar to the crash risk associated with driving while intoxicated.

Troubling implications

These findings are especially alarming because sleep deprivation and fatigued driving are prevalent in the United States. Per the CDC, in one survey, one out of 25 drivers stated that they had fallen asleep at the wheel in the 30 days preceding the survey. In 2013, an estimated 73,000 car crashes - along with 44,000 injuries and 800 accident-related deaths - were attributed to drowsy driving.

Research into fatigue-related accidents often depends on drivers to self-report their condition, since there is no definitive test for drowsiness or sleep deprivation. As a result, these estimates might even underrepresent the problem. The CDC states that as many as 6,000 crashes that occur each year may really involve drowsy driving.

When innocent motorists suffer harm in accidents involving drowsy drivers, they might be able to seek recompense for damages such as medical costs, income loss, and pain and suffering. Although drowsy driving is not currently against the law in New York, it may still be considered negligent. Accident victims who believe another driver was at fault should consider meeting with an attorney to discus the situation and learn more about their options.