A drowsy driver yawning at the wheel. Photo Credit: Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock.com.


AAA:  Drowsy Drivers Often Fail to Take Breaks

Written By: CarPro | Mar 16, 2023 11:35:20 AM

This week we bring you a new American Automobile Association study on a major problem, drowsy driving.  AAA says its new research shows that drowsy drivers aren't aware of how tired they are and often fail to take breaks.

Major Problem: Drowsy Driving

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety,  its new study shows that drowsy drivers underestimate how sleepy they are - so often don't take breaks.  Researchers say the role drowsy driving plays in accidents, crashes, injuries and deaths is underreported in government statistics, but that previous Foundation research estimated that 16% to 21% of all police-reported fatal vehicle crashes likely involve drowsy driving.

“Being drowsy while driving is a dangerous form of impairment, and it does not resolve or improve with continued driving,” said Dr. David Yang, the Foundation’s president and executive director. “Our goal is to help drivers learn to heed the early warning signs of drowsiness so they can stop, rest, and then continue their journey as safely as possible.”

Dangers of Drowsy Driving

Drowsiness defined refers to a state of increased tendency to fall asleep.  The danger isn't just falling asleep at the wheel itself.  Drowsy driving also impairs drivers by reducing their alertness.  What's more, AAA researchers say crashes caused by drowsy driving tend to be severe, because the driver may not attempt to brake or swerve to avoid a collision so impact could occur at a high rate of speed.  Another situation could be that a drowsy driver could be startled and lose control of the vehicle.

Simulated Experiment

To demonstrate the danger of drowsy driving, researchers designed a 150-mile simulated nighttime highway driving experiment for the study. Every 20 miles, there was a simulated “rest area” at which participants could stop, leave the driving simulator, walk around, nap, drink coffee, or eat a snack. A monetary incentive encouraged drivers to complete the drive as quickly as possible while incentivizing them to avoid crashing. Researchers used a brief survey to gauge how drowsy drivers felt and measured the percentage of time their eyes were closed to gauge sleepiness.e

Key Findings

AAA says levels of drowsiness generally increased throughout the simulated highway driving experiment. Participants usually knew they were drowsy, but their perceptions of how drowsy they were weren't always accurate and impacted their decision-making.

  • When drivers rated their level of drowsiness as low, 75% of them were, in fact, moderately or severely drowsy.
  • Even when drivers’ eyes were closed for 15 seconds or longer over a one-minute window— indicative of severe drowsiness—one in four still rated their drowsiness as low.
  • Drivers very rarely took breaks unless they perceived that they were very drowsy.
  • Even when drivers recognized they were extremely drowsy, they still declined 75% of their opportunities to take breaks and kept driving.

If you'd like more technical data or methodology details about the experiment click here.

Drowsy Driving Signs 

AAA says the experiment shows that drivers need some help to help recognize how drowsy they are. Knowing the warning signs of drowsiness can help drivers avoid dozing off behind the wheel. The most common symptoms include:

  • Having trouble keeping your eyes open
  • Drifting from your lane
  • Not remembering the last few miles driven

Tips to Avoid Drowsy Driving

AAA also recommends drivers get at least seven hours of sleep before hitting the road, as well as:

  • Travel at times of the day when they are normally awake
  • Avoid heavy foods
  • Avoid medications that cause drowsiness or other impairment

If you're taking longer trips:

  • Schedule a break every two hours or every 100 miles
  • Travel with an alert passenger and take turns driving
  • Do not underestimate the power of a quick nap. Pulling into a rest stop and taking a quick catnap — at least 20 minutes and no more than 30 minutes of sleep– can help to keep you alert on the road

To read about the 4 Stages of Sleep and more tips and strategies to avoid drowsy driving click here →

Detecting Driver Impairment

AAA says it supports the development of vehicle technology that can passively monitor drivers for impairment and prevent or limit vehicle operation when needed.  The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires NHTSA to create testing standards for this kind of technology that can detect driver impairment, including that caused by drowsiness, medical impairment, or drugs, including alcohol.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and get the latest car-buying news. Subscribe here!A drowsy driver yawning at the wheel. Photo Credit: Nicoleta Ionescu/Shutterstock.com.