Sleep and Driving

A growing public health concern in many countries is the number of traffic accidents attributable to sleepiness. Drowsiness leads to the same level of impairment as driving under the influence of alcohol; and like alcohol consumption, people seldom perceive the degree of their own impairment. The best estimate is that roughly 25% of fatal accidents are caused by sleep debt. The cost to society of these tragedies is extraordinarily high.

A sleep-deprived individual may be able to avoid falling asleep behind the wheel, but motor coordination, reaction times and judgment are usually compromised significantly. A coffee jolt (or several) will offset sleepiness temporarily, but the safest approach is to stop the vehicle and take a nap.


Unfortunately, there are no sleep-related counterparts to tests that measure blood alcohol levels. That’s why certain professions (professional drivers and airline pilots, to name a few) have regulations that limit operational hours. As well, some states go so far as to screen professional drivers for obstructive sleep apnea-hypopnea, a condition that causes daytime sleepiness.

The best approach for society seems to be ongoing education with repeated public warnings about the dangers of driving while drowsy.


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