Undated -- Drowsy driving causes more than 5,500 traffic deaths a year and is a factor in nearly 17% of all fatal crashes, a much higher toll than previously estimated, according to a new analysis of federal data.
The analysis from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data from 1999 through 2008 finds a much higher prevalence of drowsy driving in deadly crashes than earlier studies. A 1994 analysis found it was a factor in just 3.6% of fatal crashes, and NHTSA says it plays a role in 2%-3% each year.
"Many researchers believe drowsy driving has been underreported and underestimated," says Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the foundation. "That's one of the reasons we took this on. We have long suspected the true magnitude and scope of drowsy driving have been underreported."
Azim Eskandarian, director of the Center for Intelligent Systems Research at George Washington University, where he studies drowsy driving, says: "Everybody knows it's very hard to determine after a crash happens that the cause was drowsy driving. Most researchers believe the estimates are low."
AAA Foundation researchers determined the higher crash rate by extrapolating from crashes in which drowsy driving was confirmed as the cause to reach what they say is a more accurate estimate.
"There is no question that drowsy driving is dangerous, and we discourage anyone from driving while fatigued," says Olivia Alair, spokeswoman for the federal Department of Transportation, which includes NHTSA.
The AAA Foundation analysis, released to coincide with Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, includes a survey finding that 41% of drivers admitted to having fallen asleep behind the wheel at some point; one in 10 drivers said they had done so in the past year.
"Driving while drowsy seriously affects our safety on the road," says David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation.
Alex Noel can attest to that. Two years ago, the 19-year-old Cornell University sophomore was returning to his home in Norton, Mass., after visiting a girl in Fitchburg, about 75 minutes north. After a taxing weekend of football and homecoming events, Noel was pretty wiped out when he got on Route 495 for the drive south.
"I realized I was super tired, but I figured, 'Oh, my God, I want to go home and get in my bed,' " he says. He drifted in and out of consciousness. At one point, he says, he found himself in a different lane and didn't know how he had gotten there.
Noel's Ford 250 pickup left the road and flipped end over end, pinning him inside and leaving him barely able to breathe. He was stuck in the vehicle for more than two hours, forced to press on the side of his neck to breathe. He wore a neck brace for two months, had a broken left shoulder, nerve damage in his left arm and other injuries. "Now, if I feel sleepy, I go to the closest exit and get a Mountain Dew or a Monster (caffeinated drink)," he says.
USA Today/CBS News