Drowsy driving kills—it claimed 824 lives in 2015. Yet falling asleep at the wheel is preventable. Learn about three factors commonly associated with drowsy-driving crashes and pick up some helpful tips to avoid falling asleep at the wheel. In this section, you’ll also find several resources and learn what NHTSA is doing to help eliminate this risky behavior.
Scope of the Problem
Attitudes About Drowsy Driving Need to Change
Traffic Safety Facts Drowsy Driving 2015 (PDF, 147 KB)
Fatigue has costly effects on the safety, health, and quality of life of the American public. Whether fatigue is caused by sleep restriction due to a new baby waking every couple of hours, a late or long shift at work, hanging out late with friends, or a long and monotonous drive for the holidays – the negative outcomes can be the same. These include impaired cognition and performance, motor vehicle crashes, workplace accidents, and health consequences.
Tackling these issues can be difficult when our values frequently do not align with avoiding drowsy driving. In a 24/7 society, with an emphasis on work, longer commutes, and exponential advancement of technology, many people do not get the sleep they need. Effectively dealing with the drowsy-driving problem requires fundamental changes to societal norms and especially attitudes about drowsy driving.
The terms drowsy, sleepy and fatigue are used interchangeably although there are differences in the way these terms are used and understood.
Precise Numbers of Drowsy-Driving Crashes, Injuries and Fatalities Are Hard to Nail Down
Unfortunately, determining a precise number of drowsy-driving crashes, injuries, and fatalities is not yet possible. Crash investigators can look for clues that drowsiness contributed to a crash, but these clues are not always identifiable or conclusive.
NHTSA’s census of fatal crashes and estimate of traffic-related crashes and injuries rely on police and hospital reports to determine the incidence of drowsy-driving crashes. NHTSA estimates that in 2015, over 72,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers. These crashes led to 41,000 injuries and more than 800 deaths.
But there is broad agreement across the traffic safety, sleep science, and public health communities that this is an underestimate of the impact of drowsy driving. The broader community’s best estimate of drowsy-driving crashes is that 7 percent of all crashes and 16.5 percent of fatal crashes involve a drowsy driver. This estimate suggests that approximately 6,000 people died in drowsy-driving related motor vehicle crashes across the United States last year.
Crashes and Fatalities
Sleepiness can result in crashes any time of the day or night, but three factors are most commonly associated with drowsy-driving crashes.
- Occur most frequently between midnight and 6 a.m., or in the late afternoon. At both times of the day, people experience dips in their circadian rhythm—the human body’s internal clock that regulates sleep;
- Often involve only a single driver (and no passengers) running off the road at a high rate of speed with no evidence of braking; and
- Frequently occur on rural roads and highways.
Tips to Drive Alert
How To Avoid Driving Drowsy
From the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Healthy Sleep At A Glance (PDF, 1.81 MB)
- Getting adequate sleep on a daily basis is the only true way to protect yourself against the risks of driving when you’re drowsy. Experts urge consumers to make it a priority to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. For more information on healthy sleep, see the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website.
- Before the start of a long family car trip, get a good night’s sleep, or you could put your entire family and others at risk.
- Many teens do not get enough sleep at a stage in life when their biological need for sleep increases, which makes them vulnerable to the risk of drowsy-driving crashes, especially on longer trips. Advise your teens to delay driving until they’re well rested.
- Avoid drinking any alcohol before driving. Consumption of alcohol interacts with sleepiness to increase drowsiness and impairment.
- Always check your prescription and over-the-counter medication labels to see if drowsiness could result from their use.
- If you take medications that could cause drowsiness as a side effect, use public transportation when possible.
- If you drive, avoid driving during the peak sleepiness periods (midnight – 6 a.m. and late afternoon). If you must drive during the peak sleepiness periods, stay vigilant for signs of drowsiness, such as crossing over roadway lines or hitting a rumble strip, especially if you’re driving alone.
- Drinking coffee or energy drinks alone is not always enough. They might help you feel more alert, but the effects last only a short time, and you might not be as alert as you think you are. If you drink coffee and are seriously sleep-deprived, you still may have “micro sleeps” or brief losses of consciousness that can last for four or five seconds. This means that at 55 miles per hour, you’ve traveled more than 100 yards down the road while asleep. That’s plenty of time to cause a crash.
- If you start to get sleepy while you’re driving, drink one to two cups of coffee and pull over for a short 20-minute nap in a safe place, such as a lighted designated rest stop. This has been shown to increase alertness in scientific studies but only for short time periods.
NHTSA is dedicated to eliminating risky behaviors on our nation’s roads
NHTSA demonstrates its commitment to eliminating drowsy driving on our nation’s roads by working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health to expand our understanding of drowsy driving so we can reduce related deaths and injuries and help people avoid becoming a drowsy-driving statistic.
Other efforts include:
- In 2016, NHTSA released a strategic plan, Drowsy Driving and Research Program Plan (PDF, 613 KB), addressing six broad focus areas: Measurement and Problem Identification, Public Awareness and Education, Policy Development, High-Risk Populations, Vehicle Technology, and Infrastructure.
- In 2015, NHTSA convened the forum Asleep at the Wheel: A Nation of Drowsy Drivers (PDF, 1.66 MB) during the National Sleep Foundation’s National Drowsy Driving Prevention Week. This meeting included more than 100 participants from many diverse organizations, setting the stage for a national coordinated effort by bringing together motor vehicle and highway safety experts with sleep/circadian science experts and the sleep medicine community.
Drowsy Driving Prevention Week
Each November, the National Sleep Foundation conducts Drowsy Driving Prevention Week in an effort to reduce the number of drowsy-driving crashes.
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC)
- Dangers of Drowsy Driving
- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (January 4, 2013) Drowsy Driving – 19 States and the District of Columbia 2009-2010
- Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (July 4, 2014) Drowsy Driving and Risk Behaviors
Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
- Caution: Some Over-the-Counter Medicines May Affect Your Driving
- FDA Basics Webinar (June 2014): Over-the-Counter Medicines and Driving
Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)
- Rumble Strips: A Wake-Up Call for Drowsy Drivers
- State DOT Report: Utah Department of Transportation Research & Development Division, A Safety Analysis of Fatigue and Drowsy Driving in the State of Utah
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and Office of Prevention, Education, and Control
- Educating Youth About Sleep and Drowsy Driving (PDF, 981KB)
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
- Quick Sleep Tips for Truck Drivers (PDF, 1.9MB)
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
Volpe National Transportation Systems Center
Search for more resources
NHTSA Drowsy Driving Research and Program Plan
Traffic Tech: Countermeasures That Work, Eighth Edition