Sleep deprivation is a major public health concern in many countries. One example everyone knows about: accidents caused by sleepy drivers.
It turns out that sleepy driving is a concern that plagues about 60% of adult drivers as 168 million Americans have driven a vehicle while feeling drowsy in the past year alone. Alarmingly, 37% of adult drivers, or 103 million people, have actually fallen asleep at the wheel before. 13% of those who have actually fallen asleep at the wheel have done so at least once a month. 11 million drivers admit that their sleepiness have caused an accident or near accident. 100,000 police-reported crashes are the result of driver sleepiness every year, according to the National Highway Safety Administration, and that is severely under-reported since it is currently very hard to assess sleepiness as the cause of a crash. Drowsy driving is as dangerous as alcohol intake. Yet there is no objective measure of sleepiness while driving!
Why is sleepy driving such a problem? To find out, we need to look at the ties between sleep deprivation and our cognitive performance.
Problems caused by Sleep Deprivation
Researchers have illustrated the need for consistent, quality sleep with a simple experiment that shows the impact of sleep debt. When healthy people are forced to stay awake continuously for one or two days, their waking state is eventually interrupted by short episodes of involuntary sleep. Test subjects are incapable of avoiding them. Moreover, other adverse consequences can be observed at the same time:
- declining cognitive performance
- poor memory consolidation
- impaired attention and decision-making
- slow reaction time
The slow reaction time can be one of the most dangerous effects, as it is not only the cause of many car accidents but also some of the biggest disasters in history, like the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and The Challenger.
Scientists have observed, over longer periods of time, that a chronic lack of sleep:
- adversely impacts learning and memory
- reduces immunity
- shortens lifespans
- Create symptoms of ADHD
Sleep is an essential need, and there are many consequences and negative effects on our lives when we are deprived of sleep. While some are long-term, invisible effects, many can be seen immediately, such as shorter attention span, reduced productivity, bad moods, and, most dangerously, our slowed reaction time.
Next time, before climbing into a car while still yawning, think about the dangers you may face ahead and how you can be more proactive about making sure you’re performing at the peak of your abilities. In fact, poor sleep can be compared to blood alcohol concentration – showing that people’s reaction time and decision making process is impaired to the level of a drunk person after 20 hours of being awake.