A lot of us may recognize on some level that it’s not a good idea to drive when we’re sleep deprived. However, many drivers rationalize staying on the road when they shouldn’t because they’re trying to get home at night, have cargo to deliver, or want to cover as much ground on their road trip as possible—and the convenience of being able to continue driving seems to outweigh the risks of getting into an accident.
Perhaps one reason drowsy driving is still a relatively common practice is because it hasn’t been as heavily stigmatized as other risky practices, such driving drunk or texting behind the wheel. However, that doesn’t make it any less risky. According to the NHTSA, fatigued drivers are responsible for a reported 100,000 crashes, 40,000 injuries, and 1,550 deaths every year. Because the NHTSA didn’t factor in accidents caused by driver inattention (and because drowsy driving is hard to measure), it’s likely that these numbers are actually low. The CDC estimates that closer to 5,000 or 6,000 people are killed every year as a result of drowsy driving.
Much like driving drunk, driving while sleep-deprived makes drivers less attentive, more easily distracted, slower to react, and less well-equipped to make decisions. Although there’s no “Breathalyzer” for drowsy driving, one study found that being awake for 18 hours results in an impairment equivalent to .05 BAC, and that level of impairment jumps to the equivalent of .10 after 24 hours without sleep. Drowsy driving poses many of the same risks as drunk driving, yet it’s a much more widespread practice and is not yet illegal.
Comedian Tracy Morgan’s Tragedy
Drowsy driving has begun getting more media attention in the past couple weeks after a sleep-deprived commercial truck driver crashed into a limo on the New Jersey turnpike, killing comedian James McNair and critically injuring comedian Tracy Morgan. The truck driver, Kevin Roper, had allegedly not slept in over 24 hours, and the preliminary police investigation shows that he crashed after failing to perceive slower moving traffic ahead and swerving at the last second. His actions resulted in a pile-up with Mr. Morgan’s limo and four other cars. Mr. Roper is now being charged with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto.
Mr. Roper killed one person, injured several others, and destroyed his own life all because he wouldn’t pull over to get some sleep. Under federal regulations, commercial truck drivers are not supposed to work more than 14 hours a day (with no more than 11 hours of driving) before taking a break. However, some trucking companies and drivers may be going over hours in an attempt to make more money off faster deliveries.
Legislators Slowly Push for Better Regulation on Drowsy Driving
This recent drowsy driving tragedy has brought national attention to an issue that has largely been underreported. Both commercial truckers and passenger vehicle drivers are failing to take the risks of sleep-deprived driving seriously, pushing themselves to their limits and endangering others in the process. It’s clear that something needs to be done to discourage this practice, but because it’s so hard to measure, it will likely be a long time before we see anything such as a law against sleep-deprived driving.
One change we may see in the near future is better regulation of commercial truck driving hours. In the wake of the New Jersey Turnpike crash, Senator Charles Schumer is pushing to make it a requirement for all trucks to contain black boxes, which can track the number of hours a driver is behind the wheel. While this legislation has been slowly moving forward for a while, Senator Schumer is attempting to speed up the process.
Unfortunately, passenger vehicles do not have the same black box requirements as commercial trucks. Furthermore, car drivers may be tired for other reasons than simply from driving long stretches at a time, so it’s going to be harder to come up with a good way to measure drivers’ levels of drowsiness and keep tired people off the road. If there’s no good way to legally enforce pulling over when you’re tired, it will be up to individuals to hold themselves and their loved ones accountable for not driving when sleep deprived. With awareness of the issue growing, it will hopefully become more stigmatized and less of a common occurrence.
Help draw attention to the issue if you or a loved one is injured in an accident with a drowsy driver—call an experienced car accident lawyer to fight for compensation and show the other drivers that their risky behavior has consequences.
About the Author:
Andrew Winston is a partner at the personal injury law firm of Lawlor Winston White & Murphey. He has been recognized for excellence in the representation of injured clients by admission to the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, is AV Rated by the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, and was recently voted by his peers as a Florida “SuperLawyer”—an honor reserved for the top 5% of lawyers in the state—and to Florida Trend’s “Legal Elite.”