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Sleep deprived driving is the operation of a motor vehicle while being cognitively impaired by a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation is a major cause of motor vehicle accidents, and it can impair the human brain as much as alcohol can. According to a 1998 survey, 23% of adults have fallen asleep while driving.[1] According to the United States Department of Transportation, male drivers admit to have fallen asleep while driving twice as much as female drivers.[2]

250,000 drivers fall asleep at the wheel everyday, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at the Harvard Medical School and in a national poll released last year by the National Sleep Foundation, 54% of adult drivers said they had driven while drowsy during the past year with 28% saying they had actually fallen asleep while driving. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Drowsy Driving is a factor in more than 100,000 crashes, resulting in 1,550 deaths and 40,000 injuries annually.[3]


The effects of sleep deprivation on driving performance

Sleep deprivation has been proven to affect driving ability in three areas:[4]

  1. It impairs coordination.
  2. It causes longer reaction times.
  3. It impairs judgment.

The effects of sleep deprivation compared to the effects of alcohol

Numerous studies have found that sleep deprivation can affect driving as much, and sometimes more, than alcohol. British researchers have found that driving after 17 to 18 hours of being awake is as harmful as driving with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%, the legal limit in many European countries.[4] Men under 30 are more likely to be in an accident caused by sleep deprivation. [5]


It has been estimated that between 16% and 60% of all accidents have sleep deprivation as a cause.[4] Between 1989 and 1993, it has been estimated that an average of 1,544 people were killed annually in the US as a result of sleep deprived driving.[1]. Accidents related to sleep deprivation are most likely to happen in the early to midafternoon, and in the very early morning hours.[6] Sleep deprivation was blamed a major cause of the Selby rail crash in which 10 people died and 82 were injured.

Unique warning sign on Interstate 15 in Utah

Sleep deprived driving in truckers and in the military

Sleep deprived driving is a major problem in truckers and in the military. The US military estimates that approximately 9% of crashes resulting in death or serious injury during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield were caused by sleep deprived driving.[1]

Physician reporting

Six states require physicians to report patients who drive while impaired, including those who may be chronically sleep deprived.[7] Another twenty-five states permit physicians to violate doctor-patient confidentiality to report sleep-deprived drivers or those with sleeping disorders likely to impair driving, if they so choose.[7] The American Medical Association endorsed physician reporting in 1999, but deferred to the states on whether such notification should be mandatory or permissive.[7] An authority on professional confidentiality, Jacob Appel of New York University, has written that physician reporting is a double-edged sword, because it may deter some patients from seeking care. According to Appel, "Reporting may remove some dangerous drivers from the roads, but if in doing so it actually creates other dangerous drivers, by scaring them away from treatment, then society has sacrificed confidentiality for no tangible return in lives saved."[7]

Government response to sleep deprived driving

Governments had attempted to reduce sleep deprived driving through education messages and by ingraining roads with dents, known as rumble strips in the U.S., which cause a noise when drivers wander out of their lane. The Government of Western Australia recently introduced a "Driver Reviver" program where drivers can receive free coffee to help them stay awake.[8]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Peters, Robert D. "Effects of Partial and Total Sleep Deprivation on Driving Performance", US Department of Transportation, February 1999.
  2. ^ Sleepdex. "Drowsy Driving".
  3. ^ Shift Work Disorder [1]
  4. ^ a b c CNN. "Sleep deprivation as bad as alcohol impairment, study suggests", CNN, September 20, 2000.
  5. ^ BMA. "Effects of sleep deprivation ", British Medical Association, July 30, 2004.
  6. ^ NASD. "Sleep Deprivation: Causes and Consequences ", Nebraska Rural Health and Safety Coalition,.
  7. ^ a b c d Appel, Jacob. Must Physicians Report Impaired Driving? Rethinking a Duty on a Collision Course with Itself. 20. Journal of Clinical Ethics.  
  8. ^

External links



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