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Drowsy driving is eight times more prevalent than government data suggests, says AAA

The results are likely to add impetus to the auto industry’s high-tech efforts to prevent accidents when a motorist nods off.
Image: A City of North Miami Beach police officer conducts a field sobriety test during a DUI checkpoint
A City of North Miami Beach police officer conducts a field sobriety test during a DUI checkpoint on May 23, 2013 in Miami.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

One in 10 U.S. highway crashes is the result of drowsy driving — as much as eight times more than what previous estimates have indicated, according to a new study by travel and insurance group AAA.

The results are likely to add impetus to the auto industry’s efforts to alert drivers if they feel drowsy, and take steps to prevent accidents when a motorist does nod off.

“Drowsy driving is a bigger traffic safety issue than federal estimates show,” said David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Drivers who don’t get enough sleep are putting everyone on the road at risk.”

The AAA based its new study on dashboard videos from 700 accidents. Drowsy drivers were involved in 9.5 percent of all crashes, and 10.8 percent of more serious incidents. By comparison, federal regulators had put the drowsy driving accident rate at a much lower 1-2 percent. If the latest estimate is accurate, that would make sleepy motorists as much of a risk as distracted drivers who have been blamed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for about one in 11 crashes.

Drowsy driving is almost as dangerous as drunk driving

Concerns about drowsy driving have been growing for some time, especially in light of separate data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that more than one-third of American motorists get less than seven hours of sleep per night.

A separate AAA study released in December 2016 warned that the less sleep a driver has the more risky they become, with someone who cuts short the seven-hour norm by a few hours being nearly as much at risk of crashing as someone who is drunk.

“Don’t be fooled, the only antidote for drowsiness is sleep,” William Van Tassel, AAA’s manager of driver training, said in response to AAA’s latest report. “Your body’s need for sleep will eventually override your brain’s attempts to stay awake.”

Drowsy driving appears to respect neither gender nor age, with men as likely to drift off while behind the wheel as women. Over half of those found by the AAA study to be involved in drowsy driving crashes were between the ages of 16 and 24. And while some incidents may occur when motorists stay up late after a night out, 70 percent of the crashes occurred during the day.

It’s not that motorists aren’t aware of the risks. Virtually everyone involved in the latest AAA survey recognized there is a problem driving while drowsy, yet nearly one in three admitted doing just that within the prior month.

Automakers looking for a solution

Automakers have not been ignoring the problem. The 2018 Mercedes-Benz S-Class, for example, constantly monitors hundreds of parameters, such as steering wheel motions, to tell if a driver is growing drowsy. If necessary, it will light up a coffee cup-shaped warning light on the instrument panel advising a motorist to pull over and take a break.

Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus has similarly used a camera to monitor a driver’s eyes for telltale signs of drowsiness, also flashing an alert to pull over, catch some rest or at least down some coffee. The Japanese automaker is experimenting with even more sophisticated systems in some of its newest concept vehicles, such as the Concept-i. Its built-in artificial intelligence system is able to interact with the driver and monitor emotions and the state of a motorist’s awareness.

Related: Toyota's new self-driving cars will talk to drivers

“By using AI technology, we want to expand and enhance the driving experience,” Makoto Okabe, general manager of Toyota’s EV business planning division, said last autumn during a debut of the latest version of the Concept-i.

Human error, in general, is blamed for over 90 percent of all crashes, according to government data. Experts, such as former NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind, believe self-driving vehicles could eliminate almost all incidents. But even before then, they note that vehicles are getting more and more sophisticated ADAS, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, capable of reducing highway risks.

That includes “lane departure warning” systems that alert a driver who drifts out of their lane, as well as “lane keep” technology that will nudge the vehicle back into its lane.

A report released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety last August found that LDW systems reduce the number of single-vehicle, sideswipe and head-on crashes by 11 percent overall, and injury crashes by 21 percent. By the IIHS’s calculations that would have prevented 85,000 police-reported crashes in 2015 and eliminated 55,000 injuries. The fatal crash rate for those types of accidents was reduced by 86 percent, according to the study.

Other technologies, such as forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking can help prevent other types of drowsy driving crashes.

But until vehicles can eliminate the need for a human driver entirely, experts warn that drowsy driving will still pose a major highway hazard.