Study: Drowsy drivers may cause more accidents than previously believed

A new AAA study of over 14,000 crashes suggests that drowsy driving is responsible for 1 in 5 car crashes and thousands of injuries or fatalities.

When most people in San Diego think of common causes of car accidents, they typically think of intoxication, driver distraction and other forms of outright negligence. Accidents due to less easily controlled or unintentional factors, such as fatigue, are easier to overlook. Unfortunately, recent research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests drowsy driving may play a role in as many as 1 in 5 car accidents, according to The Washington Post.

Driving fatigued

Evaluating the prevalence of drowsy driving and the number of related accidents can be difficult, since drowsiness can't be conclusively established the way a high blood alcohol level or a poorly timed cellphone conversation can. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that drowsy driving contributes to between 5,000 and 6,000 fatal accidents on a yearly basis.

According to The Washington Post, the new AAA study supplemented crash reports from accidents that happened between 2009 and 2013 with the analysis of trained crash investigators. Researchers surveyed 14,628 crashes and reached the following conclusions:

  • Fatigued drivers played a role in 21 percent of the accidents surveyed.
  • Injuries occurred in more than one-third of the fatigued driving crashes.
  • Each year, at least 6,000 fatal accidents involving drowsy drivers occur.

The high rate of drowsy driving accidents may seem surprising, but previous research has uncovered disconnects between driver attitudes on drowsy driving and everyday decisions. According to the Washington Post, an overwhelming majority of drivers believe it is unacceptable to drive while highly fatigued and struggling to stay awake. However, 28 percent of the drivers surveyed confessed they had done so in the last 30 days.

At-risk drivers

Shift workers may be especially susceptible to driving while fatigued. A recent study of the effects of shift work on cognitive abilities, which was published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, found that long-term shift work significantly affects cognitive speed and memory. Regular shift work over the course of a decade affects a person's cognitive performance the same way 6.5 additional years of aging would. According to the study researchers, these findings raise serious safety concerns.

According to the American Psychological Association, fatigue can affect a person's reflexes and cognitive abilities. Even with adequate sleep, shift workers are often prone to fatigue because their daily routines run counter to their circadian clocks. Besides facing a higher risk of falling asleep at the wheel, shift workers may be more likely to drive at unsafe speeds, lose focus or leave the roadway, according to earlier research.

Statistics suggest that fatigued and drowsy driving accidents will affect many victims this year. Unfortunately, holding fatigued drivers responsible for the accidents and injuries they cause can be difficult. Anyone who has been hurt in an accident that another driver caused should consult with an attorney about pursuing compensation.

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