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Study: Drowsy Driving As Dangerous As Drunk Driving

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Asleep at the wheel

Asleep at the wheel

A new study out of France finds that drowsy driving is nearly as dangerous as drunk driving, and that either one doubles the risk of causing a car accident. As Andrew M. Seaman reports for Reuters, to conduct the study, researchers analyzed information from driver questionnaires and police reports to determine what might have contributed to accidents in which 679 drivers were admitted to a hospital for more than 24 hours because of serious accidents between 2007 and 2009.

The information researchers looked at included drivers’ reports on what medications they were on, their alcohol use, and how sleepy they had been before the crashes. In addition, hospital files provided information on the drivers’ blood alcohol levels.

Most of the injured drivers were male and under 55 years old; more than half of them were on a motorcycle, about one-third were in a car, and 10% were on a bicycle at the time of their accidents, Seaman writes. The study, which appears as a letter in the Archives of Internal Medicine, says that while 77% of the crashes occurred between 6 AM and 8 PM, night crashes were four times more common in those who were 18 to 29 years old, and were twice more common in those who were 30 to 54 years old than among those 55 years or older.

Of the 679 drivers, 355 were responsible for the crashes they were involved in, according to the study. Conducted under the direction of Dr. Nicholas Moore at the Centre Hospitalo-Universitaire de Bordeaux in France, the study found that being between 18 and 29, driving a car, drinking alcohol, and feeling sleepy were all independent predictors of being responsible for a crash.

Huff Post Healthy Living writes:

But even though the study was in France, driving drowsy isn’t unique to the European nation. CNN reported on a AAA Foundation poll, the results of which came out last year, showing that one in three people said they drove while they were drowsy in the last 30-day period.

And earlier last year, a study came out of the Netherlands showing that night-driving for two hours is akin to driving while buzzed; driving for three hours at night is akin to being drunk, Wired reported.

And according to Dr. Lisa Shives, M.D., of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Illinois, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 crashes reported to U.S. police every year are due to fatigue and sleepiness, Huff Post Healthy Living notes. “And that is a conservative estimate because it is hard to pin down how many crashes are due to drowsiness,” Dr. Shives said.

Christopher Drake, an associate scientist at the Henry Ford Hospital Sleep Disorders and Research Center in Detroit, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health that the results are “interesting” even though they do not change what was already known.

Reuters’ Seaman writes that there was at least one unexpected finding in the study:

Surprisingly, taking medications that carry warnings about affecting a driver’s abilities — one of the researchers’ main focuses — was tied to a lower risk of causing an accident.

[The study’s director] Moore told Reuters Health that may be because people taking those medications are more aware of their side effects.

‘Medicinal drugs might be an issue to keep an eye on and warn people about, but it’s not the main issue,’ he said.

If the main issue is prevention, laws may not hold the answer, however. Drake told Reuters that although there are some laws in the U.S. to punish sleepy drivers, they are hard to enforce unless someone gets into an accident. “It’s very difficult. There is no breathalyzer for sleepiness,” he said.

When Dr. Shives wrote an article for the CNN Health blog, The Chart, in November 2011, she reported that New Jersey was the only state that makes it illegal to drive while knowingly fatigued. That state enacted “Maggie’s Law” after the 1997 death of Maggie McDonnell, a college student killed when a driver who admitted being awake for 30 hours, crashed into her car. You can find eight tips that Shives gives to avoid driving in her article.

Image by WarmSleepy (Timothy Krause), used under its Creative Commons license.


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