Driving While Sleepy, Tired, or Drowsy? You’re Risking a Crash, or Worse

Driving While Sleepy, Tired, or Drowsy? You're Risking a Crash, or Worse
You’ve probably driven while tired before….

We’ve spent a lot of time over the years talking about safe and unsafe practices behind the wheel. There are obvious things not to do, like speeding, driving unbuckled, and drinking. However, there are less obvious factors that may play larger roles in day-to-day crashes, if not fatalities, than most of us realize, and one of them is drowsy driving. Driving while tired (as in too tired to drive safely) is, per a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a factor behind around 10% of crashes in the United States. Let’s dig into the article a bit and see what we can learn.

The NHTSA is underestimating drowsy driving risks and prevalence

Those 3,500 drivers were involved in more than 700 crashes. Drowsiness was determined to be a factor in up to 9.5 percent of those accidents. In addition, more than 10 percent of the accidents that resulted in property damage, airbag deployment or injury involved tired drivers.

The percentages are far higher than what the federal government has estimated as the impact of drowsy driving, which it puts at 1 to 2 percent of all vehicle crashes.

Driving While Sleepy, Tired, or Drowsy? You're Risking a Crash, or Worse
…statistically, you’re not alone.

This is significant, because there’s a 5-10x discrepancy between the results of this study and previous estimates from the federal government (with the relevant agency here being the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, or NHTSA). I’ve written about NHTSA errors before, such as in their refusal to adopt stronger safety standards for rear-facing, for seat strength standards, for traffic speed enforcement, for semi trailer underride prevention, and for crash tests.

It’s a flawed industry, particularly compared to its NCAP equivalent in Europe. Now it appears they’re dramatically underestimating the significance of sleeping drivers on crash rates. If this is true, it’s easy to see why they’d devote less attention toward public education, law enforcement, and cultural change toward attitudes about sleepy driving. You can’t change what you don’t perceive to be a problem. But the stats suggest that this is a problem.

Around 3 out of every 10 drivers admit to practically falling asleep at the wheel every month

It also comes at a time when researchers in many fields are examining the impact of Americans failing to get enough sleep. A recent survey by the AAA foundation found 29 percent of those questioned admitted to driving, at some point in the past month, when they were so tired they had a hard time keeping their eyes open.

Driving While Sleepy, Tired, or Drowsy? You're Risking a Crash, or Worse
But this isn’t company you want to keep.

Are you scared yet? Because per the study, nearly 3 in 10 drivers admitted that in the last month, they’d driven at least once while so tired they could barely keep their eyes open. At that level of tiredness, you’re not paying attention to what’s in front of you, never mind to what’s beside you or behind you in your mirrors; you’re struggling to keep from falling asleep completely, and anyone who’s anywhere around you (never mind in the same vehicle as you) is risking their lives. The problem, of course, is that you can’t tell the driver approaching you in the opposite lane is falling asleep until s/he starts veering into yours. And if you’re not driving on an undivided road, your odds of surviving a head-on collision will drop rapidly above 43 mph. It happens over and over and over again.

Drowsy driving is drunk driving

“Missing just two to three hours of sleep can more than quadruple your risk for a crash, which is the equivalent of driving drunk,” said Jake Nelson, director of traffic safety advocacy and research at AAA.

Driving While Sleepy, Tired, or Drowsy? You're Risking a Crash, or Worse
Functionally, you’re as good as drunk.

This, as far as I’m concerned, is the keystone point of the article. When you drive while tired, dozing, sleepy, drowsy–whatever you call it–you’re effectively driving drunk. We’ve talked before about how there is no safe amount of alcohol you can drink before driving. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this exists for sleep, as the range of what constitutes “a good night’s sleep” varies more than the body’s inability to process alcohol, but using the baseline of 7.5 hours as a minimal amount of necessary sleep as suggested by Dan Beuttner in his excellent text on healthy living, The Blue Zones, Nelson’s quotation above suggests that dropping down to 5 hours of sleep places your body under the same handicaps as having a drink (or two, or three; it doesn’t matter) before getting behind the wheel.

Driving while sleepy is harder to detect, but it may claim thousands of lives a year

Driving While Sleepy, Tired, or Drowsy? You're Risking a Crash, or Worse
…and eventually, it catches up to us all.

The difference, of course, is that a lack of sleep won’t show up in a blood or breathalyzer test. It’s also far more socially acceptable to drive while tired than it is to drive while drunk, even though drunk driving is still socially acceptable enough to factor into 30% of fatal crashes year after year. Right now, we really have no idea how many fatal crashes are due to people simply falling asleep or driving in sleepy states immediately before collisions. We know it happens sometimes; I’ve written about it multiple times, such as in the case where a young man fell asleep, crossed lanes, and killed a lady in her 50s. I wrote about it elsewhere in a case where a baby died on Christmas day while a family was driving and the father fell asleep.

Driving While Sleepy, Tired, or Drowsy? You're Risking a Crash, or Worse
The stakes are too high to go without sleep.

There are many more stories I’ve covered through the years, and most likely thousands more that occur each year but that are classified as having to do with lapses of “attention.” Few people, after all, will readily admit to having fallen asleep behind the wheel upon realizing that their actions led to the death of another human being. And of course, if you fall asleep and die in a crash as a result, whether after crashing into another vehicle or simply by leaving the road (because remember, a full 50% of fatal crashes don’t involve any vehicles beyond the one carrying the driver), no one’s ever going to know you died because you didn’t get enough hours of sleep the previous night.

Take the time to get a good night’s sleep every night if at all possible, especially if there’s any chance of driving the following day. Much like a hangover, the only cure for a lack of sleep is time–in this case, time with your eyes closed. If you don’t make that time in bed, you’ll make it up behind the wheel, and potentially in the grave.

If you find my information on best practices in car and car seat safety helpful, you can do your shopping through this Amazon link. Canadians can shop here for Canadian purchases. Have a question or want to discuss best practices? Join us in the forums!

Can’t Afford a Subaru Outback? The Impreza & Crosstrek are Just as Safe

Can't Afford a Subaru Outback? The Impreza and Crosstrek Are Just As Safe
According to the IIHS’ 2017 driver death rate survey, there’s no safety difference between driving a Subaru Outback, Impreza hatchback, or Crosstrek.

If you drive a Subaru, there’s a good chance you do so because you learned about their reputation for safety, whether from direct advertising or from word of mouth from friends and family. It’s not hard to see why Subaru has largely replaced Volvo in the minds of many families when it comes to associations with safety; the Outback, Legacy, and Forester are frequent members on the IIHS’ “top safety pick” lists each year, regardless of which additional standards the IIHS tacks on (most recently, the passenger-side small overlap test).

However, safety has far more to do with how vehicles actually stand up to our blood-soaked highways than it does with controlled crash tests. If you really want to know how many people die driving particular vehicles, you can pull FARS data directly from the NHTSA and analyze it yourself. However, if you’d rather get a summary of their results and are willing to surrender some accuracy, you can check the IIHS’ calculations instead. They have a.) large error margins and b.) neglect two thirds of what matters most in auto safety–road design and driver behavior–but the numbers are still interesting to review.

This is part of an ongoing series I’ve written reviewing data from the IIHS’ summer 2017 Status Report (volume 52, number 3); previous articles include comparisons between the Outback, Forester, and Legacy, the Accord and Camry, the Sienna and Odyssey, the Cruze and Suburban, and the CRV and Pilot. Today we’ll look at whether or not there’s a safety difference between the Subaru Outback and its smaller hatchback siblings, the Subaru Impreza and Crosstrek, which itself is just a raised version of the Impreza wagon.

2011-2014 Subaru Outback – 12 driver deaths (5-20)

According to the IIHS, the Subaru Outback had an estimated driver death rate of 12 during the 2011-14 model years, with 8 of those deaths predicted to occur from multiple vehicle crashes. The exposure was based on 1,116,891 registered vehicle yeas, resulting in a confidence bound of 5-20. In plain English, this means that the IIHS estimates that if 1 million drivers drove 1 million Outbacks of the aforementioned model years throughout the United States, we’d expect 12 of them to die over the course of a year, and would expect the actual death figure to be between 5 and 20 95% of the years measured.

2012-2014 Subaru Impreza 4WD Hatchback – 12 driver deaths (3-36)

The Impreza  hatchback (not sedan) also had an estimated driver death rate of 12 during the 2012-14 model year, with 8 of those deaths again predicted to occur in multi-vehicle crashes. The exposure was based on 245,970 registered vehicle years, a figure roughly 1/5th the size of the Outback’s, resulting in a much larger confidence bound (it spanned 34 instead of 16 as with the Outback). As with the Outback’s driver death rate, we need to remember that the number doesn’t mean 12 drivers died while driving Imprezas; it means that if we looked at 500,000 drivers behind the wheel of 500,000 2012-14 Impreza hatchbacks over 2 years (or 1 million over 1 year), we’d expect 12 to die over that time period.

2013-2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek 4WD – 17 driver deaths (4-51)

Finally, let’s look at the XV Crosstrek. It had the greatest estimated rate of driver deaths at 17 for the 2013-14 model years, with 6 predicted multiple vehicle fatalities. The exposure was based on 173,380 registered vehicle years, the smallest of the three wagons. As a result, it had the largest confidence bound at 48 instead of 34 as with the Impreza hatchback or 16 as with the Outback. As a reminder, the IIHS won’t include any vehicle in their calculations with fewer than 100,000 registered vehicle years, and a registered vehicle year is one vehicle registered for a full year. Below 100,000, the IIHS either feels the model shows too much error or too large of a confidence bound for them to be taken seriously. At any rate, the driver death figure again suggests that if 1 million drivers drove 1 million 2013-14 Crosstreks for a year throughout the US, we’d expect 17 of them to die.

Does this mean the Outback and Impreza is the safest, followed by the Crosstrek?

Not at all. Although the Outback and Impreza had the lowest driver death rates at 12, followed by the Crosstrek at 17, the driver death rates of all three vehicles were statistically the same. This is why it’s important to read and understand the confidence bounds. The 95% confidence bounds suggest where we’d find the true driver death rate 95% of the time we let drivers and vehicles loose (e.g., when 1 million drivers drove 1 million vehicles for a year, or when 500,000 drivers drove 500,000 vehicles for 2 years, and so on). I tend to use 1 million as the sample when explaining this because the IIHS bases their driver death rate figures on 1 million registered vehicle years, but you could technically use any sample as long as it added up to the same amount of vehicles, drivers, and time on the road.

Per the model, the Outback’s true driver death rate would almost always fall between 5 and 20. The Impreza’s would land between 3 and 36, and the Crosstrek’s between 4 and 51. In other words, there’s a chance (5-20, or 16, out of 3-51, or 49) of 16/49, or 33%, that all three vehicles have exactly the same driver death rate. It’s possible the Outback had the lowest true driver death rate. It’s also possible that the Impreza or Crosstrek would see the fewest driver deaths. The point is that you can’t say which of the vehicles is definitely safer based on the numbers, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of them were driven across the country in all kinds of conditions for years. Or to be blunt, there’s no way to prove that any differences in how many drivers lived or died aren’t simply due to chance.

How can the Impreza, Crosstrek, and Outback be equally safe if the Outback is bigger–i.e., longer, wider, and heavier?

The reason the Outback, Impreza, and Crosstrek are equally safe vehicles in real world driving despite the size differences is because staying alive as a driver (or passenger) has much more to do with driver behavior and road safety than it does with vehicle selection once a vehicle has basic safety safety features in place. It’s the same reason why a Prius is as safe as vehicles weighing two or three times as much, why a CR-V is as safe as a Pilot, and why a Cruze is as safe as a Suburban. And don’t forget that next to semi-trucks, buses, and garbage trucks, we’re all driving tiny, featherweight vehicles.It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a 3,000 pound (e.g., an Impreza), 3,500 pound (e.g., an Outback), or 5,000 pound (e.g., a Ford F-150) vehicle when a second away from a head-on collision with a 60,000 pound truck. Focus on avoiding the truck, not on trusting your car to see you through the crash.

Does this mean that my loved ones are equally safe in an Impreza, Crosstrek, and Outback?

Yes. If you want to keep your husband, wife, children, or family safe, any of the three vehicles above will be more than enough to check the “good enough” box for vehicle selection. The lion’s share of what makes the difference will be tied to the degree to which you choose safe speeds, follow best practices with car seats,  and choose safe roads.  These factors will make far more of a difference in avoiding and surviving crashes than the vehicle you choose.

If you find my information on best practices in car and car seat safety helpful, you can do your shopping through this Amazon link. Canadians can shop here for Canadian purchases. Have a question or want to discuss best practices? Join us in the forums!

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35,000 Americans will die this year on the road. You don't have to be one of them. A car seat and car safety blog to promote best practices for families.