Drowsy driving is dangerous driving

By on Thursday, November 2nd, 2023 in More Top Stories Northeastern Oregon News

OREGON – There are many factors that contribute to automotive crashes, such as speed, road conditions, visibility, alcohol consumption, and driver distractions, among others. Driving while drowsy, especially when combined with other factors, can be exceptionally dangerous and deceptive in how quickly it can lead to an accident. As often repeated by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), “it only takes a second for it to hit you.”

For context, drowsy driving specifically refers to driving while physically tired or fatigued, such that a driver is at risk of significant distraction or even falling asleep. Unlike many other causes behind traffic accidents, the sheer scope of drowsy driving incidents is difficult to track due to the lack of tangible evidence left behind in the wake of an incident, especially those that turn fatal. Like most other forms of distracted or impaired driving, however, drowsy driving is entirely preventable, with the factors that feed into it being well understood.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving related crashes:

  • Most frequently occur between midnight and 6:00 a.m. and in the afternoon when the body’s internal sleep regulation experiences dips.
  • Most commonly involves a single driver leaving the roadway at a high rate of speed with minimal signs of breaking.
  • Frequently occurs on rural roads and major highways.

For drivers and passengers, knowing the basic warning signs of drowsy driving can allow time to intervene and prevent a worst-case scenario. Common signs according to ODOT include:

  • Yawning or blinking frequently.
  • Difficulty remembering recent miles driven.
  • Missing an exit/turn.
  • Difficulty in maintaining a lane.
  • Hitting a rumble strip

If you experience any of these symptoms while driving, don’t hesitate to pull over and wrest or, if a passenger is with you, change drivers. Passengers likewise shouldn’t hesitate to intervene and ask their driver to stop should symptoms of drowsiness become apparent.

If you are alone or are unable to pull over and wrest for any significant period, both ODOT and NHTSA recommend short 20-minute naps at a rest stop or well-lit area. This can help offset symptoms for a short time and prevent “micro sleeps,” defined by NHTSA as, “brief losses of consciousness that can last for four or five seconds.”

Coffee combined with short naps can provide enough energy for a driver to continue for a short time. That said, such measures should not be relied on and only used if no practical alternatives are available. Other stopgaps such as energy drinks, rolling down the window, or turning on the radio may not be enough to prevent micro sleeps or significant lane drift.

As drowsiness is largely dependent on sleep and energy, there are several simple solutions to avoid hitting a state of physical/mental fatigue when on the road. As further recommended by NHTSA:

  • Simply getting adequate sleep (especially for teenagers) can prevent drowsy states.
  • Avoid drinking any alcohol before driving. Even if under the legal limit, alcohol consumption can exaggerate drowsiness.
  • Check prescription and over-the-counter medications for symptoms/side effects of drowsiness or fatigue.
  • If possible, use public transport when on medications that may cause drowsiness.
  • Avoid driving during the prior mentioned sleepiness periods if possible.

Looking locally, the Oregon State Police recently responded to two separate drowsy driving incidents in Baker County. Both were non-fatal but demonstrate just how quickly a loss of consciousness and cohesion can occur and result in an accident. The first incident occurred on October 29 on I-84 eastbound near milepost 327. The OSP description of the incident reads:

“The driver of a white 2022 Subaru Forester fell asleep and exited the roadway by way of the right shoulder. The Subaru traveled approximately 100 yards on the right roadside and crashed through the ODOT fence. The passenger drove the Subaru back to the roadway. Approximately 40 feet of ODOT fence was damaged. No injuries were reported at the scene. The Subaru drove away from the scene.”

The second incident occurred on October 31 on Highway 245 and involved a pickup pulling a trailer departing the highway and striking an ODOT guardrail. In this case, the driver was later arrested on an unrelated court protection order, though the initial crash is still believed to have been caused by the driver falling asleep. The OSP description related to the cause of the incident and the subsequent damage is as follows:

“The cause of the crash was determined to be due to fatigue based on the driver’s statement he fell asleep and departed the highway to the right as he traveled northbound. The driver was cited for not having proof of insurance at the jail and warned for failing to maintain lane. The Trooper requested a non-preference tow to remove the vehicle combination and Superior Towing responded to tow the combination. The Trooper estimated 12-posts worth of guardrail was damaged during the crash event.”

Though these incidents were minor, lapses in attentiveness can happen suddenly and have disastrous consequences for the drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. Once again, “it only takes a second for it to hit you.”

For more information on drowsy driving, see ODOT and NHTSA sources at https://www.oregon.gov/odot/Safety/Pages/Drowsy-Driving.aspx