Health experts sounding alarm on dangers of drowsy driving

Medical experts say that people are still undervaluing the importance of sleeping at least seven hours per night.

Even though medical experts stress the importance of a good night's sleep – ideally between seven and eight hours per night, depending on age and activity level – far too many Americans aren't getting enough of it. Not only is this increasing their risk of long-term health complications, but it's risking the immediate safety of themselves and their fellow commuters, according to a newly released report.

In the past year, over 5,000 people were seriously hurt or killed due to drowsy driving, the Governors Highway Safety Association recently announced from its report, "Wake Up Call! Understanding Drowsy Driving and What States Can Do." With only 24 hours in a day and Americans trying to do as much as possible, something has to give, and all too often, sleep has been sacrificed, to the detriment of individuals' mental and physical well-being. The report noted that close to 84 million Americans get behind the wheel on a daily basis despite not having slept enough the night before.

Because many overtired people are able to get to their destinations safely without having been involved in an accident, safety officials aren't quite sure how pervasive the drowsy driving sleep epidemic truly is. For example, officials estimate that the percentage of fatalities stemming from lack of sleep could be as low as 2% to potentially more than 20%.

Additionally, preventing motorists from driving in a drowsy state is nearly impossible to legislate, noted GHSA Executive Director Jonathan Adkins, putting traffic enforcement officers in a bind.

"There are challenges associated with both measuring and combating drowsy driving," Adkins explained in a press release. "Law enforcement lack protocols and training to help officers recognize drowsy driving at roadside. [Plus], if a crash occurs, the drowsy driver may not report the cause due to concerns about monetary and other penalties."

One potential way to stem the tide of drowsy drivers is by identifying the motorists that are most likely to engage in the risky behavior, using history as a guide. According to the GHSA analysis, on a per year basis, teenagers and young adults – typically between 18 and 35 years of age – have been involved in the most accidents stemming from nodding off at the wheel.

Sleep every bit as important to health as eating, exercising

Pam Fischer, former Director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety, and co-author of the GHSA report, said that society has to re-examine its priorities and start looking at high-quality sleep like they would breathing – in other words, an activity that's fundamental to daily living.

"Sleep is a restorative and life-sustaining activity that is just as important as eating right and exercising," Fischer warned. "When we skimp on sleep, we're less able to react quickly – a critical element of safe driving. Our mental and physical health also suffers."

Drivers should surrender keys on two hours of sleep or less

Though drowsy driving is not exactly a new phenomenon, it's within the last decade or so that health officials have recognized it as a bona fide public safety threat. They've also determined when motorists are operating on too little sleep to drive safely.  In June, the National Sleep Foundation published its findings on how sleep deprivation has led to traffic safety repercussions at the national level. Experts concluded that when motorists get behind the wheel having slept two or fewer hours the night prior, they shouldn't be considered fit to drive. This view was shared by experts from the American College of Chest Physicians, American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, as well as the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms.

"The National Sleep Foundation's Drowsy Driving Consensus Statement gives public policy makers a clear direction on when vehicle operators should be considered too sleep deprived to drive, and are therefore impaired," said David Cloud, NSF CEO. "We believe this simple definition for drowsy driving will serve as a powerful tool to help policy makers create safer roads and drivers to make sound decisions."

As previously mentioned, because drowsy driving often goes unreported, it's difficult to pinpoint how pervasive the public health issue is. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than 5,000 people die each year from highway accidents where insufficient rest was a contributing factor. However, many believe that this estimate is far short of the actual figure, including scientists that participated in the NSF study, who say at least 6,400 people die from drowsy driving per year and 50,000 are grievously injured.