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How Sleep Deprivation Causes Car Accidents

Drowsy driving affects countless drivers. Unfortunately, not enough people get enough sleep, and that can lead to dangerous consequences on Philadelphia roads and highways.

Did you know how sleep deprivation causes car accidents? It does, and the reasons why may surprise you. This type of driving is even considered more dangerous than drinking and driving, but it gets less publicity from national safety campaigns.

You might even be a tired driver and not even know it. At Shrager Sachs & Blanco, we know that any factors leading to a car accident can be devastating for victims and their loved ones.

For that reason, let’s look at the signs of fatigued driving and learn about the risk factors that can lead to this behavior on the road.

The Facts on Drowsy Driving

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 693 were killed last year due to drowsy driving. The actual impact may be even higher, as drivers often underreport drowsy driving incidents. Many drivers are reluctant to report their own drowsy driving incidents due to fear of legal repercussions. While all the focus remains on impaired or distracted driving, fatigued driving is another road concern.

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation impacts cognitive function and reaction time to the point where it is comparable to being intoxicated with alcohol. In fact, being awake for 24 hours straight can lead to impaired cognitive function and reaction time that is equal to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.10%, per the National Sleep Foundation. This is well above the legal limit for alcohol intoxication in all states.

With that, a sleep-deprived driver will react in a way that is similar to someone who has consumed alcohol, including:

  • Slower reaction times
  • impaired judgment
  • Decreased awareness of their surroundings

Unfortunately, the similarities between exhaustion and inebriation can make drowsy driving a silent killer on our roads. Often, these car crashes can result in serious and deadly consequences for the driver, other road users, and even pedestrians.

How a Lack of Sleep Leads to Car Crashes

One of the top reasons that sleep deprivation is dangerous is that it reduces alertness. Without enough sleep, cognitive function, attention, and reaction time can all be impaired. As a result, it can become more difficult to stay focused and respond quickly to changing conditions on the road.

Sleep deprivation can lead to different types of hazards, especially microsleep. When a person is sleep-deprived or tired, they may have brief lapses in attention. Often, these last for mere seconds.

When a person experiences microsleep while behind the wheel, they are not able to react to changing road conditions. While these episodes may seem harmless, they can be very dangerous, especially when driving at high speeds or in heavy traffic. Unfortunately, those consequences can be catastrophic.

Fatigue can also impact decision-making ability. When someone is tired, it can become harder to assess risks and respond appropriately to changing situations on the road. Often, this leads to poor choices behind the wheel. Drivers may:

  • Fail to yield or stop at lights
  • Speed
  • Switch lanes without signaling

All of these dangerous behaviors can lead to serious car accidents, especially if you add in factors like speed.

Risk Factors for Sleep Deprivation

Certain factors can lead to an increased risk of sleep deprivation. According to other research from the National Sleep Foundation, the amount of sleep a driver gets in the past 24 hours significantly affects their likelihood of being involved in and responsible for car crashes.

Drivers who sleep less than seven hours are considered to be at a higher risk than those who get adequate sleep. The risk of crashing increases even further for drivers who have slept fewer than four hours.

Some risk factors associated with sleep-deprived driving include:

  • Lack of adequate rest: Drivers who consistently get less sleep than recommended are at higher risk.
  • Night driving: The risk is higher during late-night or early-morning hours when our natural circadian rhythm promotes sleepiness.
  • Shift workers: Those working night shifts or rotating schedules face increased risk due to disrupted sleep patterns.
  • Untreated sleep disorders: Conditions like sleep apnea, where breathing interruptions disrupt sleep, contribute to drowsy driving.
  • Medications: Certain medications cause drowsiness. Always check labels for warnings.

Taking Steps Towards Safety

Only two states in the United States have laws against tired driving: Arkansas and New Jersey. However, there are only penalties if the driver is sleep-deprived, leading to a fatal crash. While not explicitly sleep-related, police officers across the country can still ticket drivers for reckless driving or other traffic violations if they observe signs on the road.

Since trucks are massive vehicles with significant weight, the drivers need to be able to properly shine them on the road. For that reason, Hours of Service regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration stipulate the number of hours for driving and rest per driver. Under the law, all drivers must keep detailed logs of their driving and rest periods. These regulations are designed to help ensure that commercial drivers are well-rested and alert while on the job, reducing the risk of accidents caused by fatigue.

Drowsy driving is not a minor inconvenience; it’s a life-threatening behavior. By knowing the risk factors and the prevalence of these car crashes, we can keep our roads free from the shadows of sleep-deprived accidents.


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