Drowsy Drivers Significant Cause of Emergency Room Visits

Highway safety is a large concern, and drivers report millions of accidents every year. In 2013 alone, an estimated 2.31 million people sustained injuries in motor vehicle traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA); that's 2.31 million injured, not just two-million-and-change accidents. All the usual suspects (alcohol, weather conditions, and distracted driving) contribute to this figure; however another, lesser-known factor also increases accident likelihood: sleep deprivation.

Drowsy drivers, as they are referred to by both the NHTSA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), have been the focus of quite a few studies in recent years. The NHTSA estimates that 2.5% of fatal crashes and 2% of injury crashes involve drowsy driving. The CDC opines that these estimates are likely too conservative, putting between 5,000 and 6,000 fatal crashes every year at the feet of sleep-deprived drivers.

Although it may sound harmless, drowsy drivers experience significant impairments in cognitive and motor function. One study found that moderate sleep deprivation produced performance decreases equivalent to levels of alcohol intoxication legally prohibited on US highways. After 17-19 hours without sleep, subjects had response speeds up to 50% slower than normal, and on some tests subjects were actually less responsive than those with a BAC of 0.05%. The CDC reports that after 24 hours awake, impairment is equivalent to a BAC of 0.10% — higher than the legal limit in all states.

Making this data even more shocking is a supplementary CDC study that found 4.2% of individuals reported that they had fallen asleep while driving in the past 30 days. That's 4.2% of people in the study who admitted to actually falling asleep at the wheel, not just operated a vehicle while sleep deprived.

Measuring impairments due to sleep deprivation for the average driver isn't easy, but a comprehensive report by a panel of experts from the NHTSA and the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR) establishes some baseline characteristics shared by crashes involving drowsy drivers:

  • Likely to occur during late night, early morning, or midafternoon
  • Likely to be a serious accident
  • Usually a single vehicle leaves the roadway
  • Occurs on a high-speed road
  • No visible effort by driver to avoid crash
  • Driver is alone in the vehicle

There are a few groups in particular that are more likely to drive while sleep deprived. Younger drivers from the ages 16 to 29, especially males, drive drowsy more often. Shift workers whose sleep patterns are disrupted by night work, or those who work long or irregular hours also have a tendency to drive while impaired by fatigue. Lastly, those with untreated sleep apnea syndrome or narcolepsy are more likely to have sleep deficiency-related impairments in their driving.

The NHTSA and CDC, among others, recommend several strategies to mitigate the effects of sleep deprivation on driving ability. Not surprisingly, getting adequate sleep is at the top of the list. The NHTSA further recommends abstaining from even small amounts of alcohol while drowsy and limiting driving done between midnight and 6 am. In fact, even perfectly rested drivers may want to limit getting on the road during those high-risk hours to avoid the risk of colliding with others who are fatigue-impaired.

Healthcare administrators need to pay particularly close attention to studies like this, which shed a revealing light on the causes of automobile accidents. Drivers who are injured in car crashes typically end up in emergency rooms, placing strain on ER doctors and nurses who are usually already overworked. A CDC report puts the number of hospital admissions due to traffic incidents at a whopping 2.5 million per year. That's a lot of time and effort that could be relegated to other medical issues if some drivers took only a few simple safety precautions. Hospital executives and CFOs who need to manage the budget shouldn't just look at ways to cut administrative costs – investing in awareness and prevention measures may reduce the number of patients visiting emergency rooms, cutting down not just on costs, but pain and suffering for many.

U.S. National Library of Medicine
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Accidents or Unintentional Injuries
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Motor Vehicle Data
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Drowsy Driving
National Conference of State Legislatures
ABC News
Health Day: News for Healthier Living
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

About the Author
Iris Stone began her working as a freelance writer and researcher in 2011. Her business soon took off and she now owns and operates a writing and editing firm that works with clients all across the country. Despite the time it takes to run a business she still does much of the writing herself, and her work has included a variety of content related to education, medicine, healthcare careers, and science. Her interests actually span far beyond writing, and she is currently studying to be a physicist. Check out her Google+ Profile.

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