Drowsy Driving

May 2016


Drowsy driving, the hazardous combination of fatigue and operating a motor vehicle, is creating dangerous, and at times deadly, conditions on U.S. roadways, becoming a major threat to public safety. National transportation safety agencies and sleep medicine experts are working together to not only spread awareness and education about this important issue, but to diminish the number of drowsy driving related incidents from our roads altogether.

“Drowsy driving is every bit of a problem as drunk driving,” says Nathaniel Watson, M.D., 2015–2016 president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and professor of neurology at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We need to get the public to appreciate the fact that it’s a preventable cause of motor vehicle accidents.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), from 2009 to 2013, annually on average, there were more than 72,000 drowsy driving related crashes, as measured by NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). NHTSA also estimates more than 7,000 people have been killed in such accidents over the last decade.

AAMVA has been participating in numerous national-level forums to discuss the issue with federal policymakers, including NHTSA, according to Cian Cashin, senior manager of government affairs at AAMVA. “We are also working with the AASM and the National Sleep Foundation,” he says.


Dr. Watson and the AASM created the Sleep and Transportation Safety Awareness Task Force. One of its main initiatives is to provide comprehensive educational material about drowsy driving for inclusion in states’ driver programs, including questions for the driver’s license exam. The goal is to “provide quality information that is consistent nationwide,” says Dr. Watson.

States have responded positively, according to AASM. Some states, such as New York, already have sufficient education material and support the initiative. Other states, including Delaware, Nebraska, Kansas, Pennsylvania, California and Alaska, are interested in either adopting the language recommended by AASM or working with AASM to tailor its recommendations to their specific needs. According to AASM, outreach to the other states is ongoing, and the academy is hopeful it will continue to secure interest from additional states.

Utah and Montana have been very proactive about drowsy driving awareness, says Dr. Watson. Utah established a Teen Driving Safety Task Force that launched the “Don’t Drive Stupid” campaign, addressing drowsy driving as one of the “5 deadly behaviors.” Montana has an extensive drowsy driving module, including a lesson plan, presentations and fact sheets as part of its driver’s education curriculum.

An issue of national concern

This past November, NHTSA, led by its administrator, Mark Rosekind, Ph.D., a renowned expert on human fatigue, launched a national forum to address drowsy driving. Called “Asleep at the Wheel: A Nation of Drowsy Drivers,” the program involves many in the traffic safety and sleep communities. NHTSA also recently released its “Drowsy Driving Research and Program Plan,” which includes a total of 10 projects that will begin by late 2016.

One major challenge of eliminating drowsy driving related incidents for both safety and sleep experts is there’s no way to accurately measure drowsiness and fatigue; therefore, civil or criminal penalties against it are hard to enforce. “While many policymakers are willing to admit that drowsy driving is an issue, they find it more difficult to hold someone accountable for something that cannot be definitively proven,” says Cashin.

While there is currently no biomarker for measuring the impact of drowsy driving, certain forms of technology that both combat and detect drowsy driving have been in the works. “There are corrective technologies that may play a role in mitigating dangerous driving behaviors, such as lane departure warning systems and fatigue detection systems,” explains Cashin. “As these technologies continue to evolve, the ability to minimize human error and dangerous behaviors on the roadways becomes more tangible.”

There are countermeasures to drowsy driving, such as caffeine or pulling over for a short nap, but those are just quick fixes. The ultimate goal is to make people not even get to that point in the first place. “There’s typically no middle ground in drowsy driving,” says Dr. Watson. “It’s often not a problem until it’s catastrophic.”


Learn more about the American Academy of Sleep Medicine's perspective on drowsy driving.