A recent study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety opines that acute sleep deprivation exponentially increases the risk of an auto accident. In fact, even mild sleep deprivation ups the risk. Drivers who slept for less than seven hours in the previous 24 hours and also drivers who slept for one hour less than normal had a “significantly elevated crash risk.” As compared to drivers who slept 7 hours or more in the preceding 24 hours:
- Drivers who slept 6-7 hours had 1.3 times the crash rate;
- Drivers who slept 5-6 hours had 1.9 times the crash rate;
- Drivers who slept 4-5 hours at 4.3 times the crash rate;
- Drivers who slept less than 4 hours had 11.5 times the crash rate.
Meanwhile, drivers who slept 1 to 2 hours less than their usual rate had 1.3 times the crash rate. Meanwhile, those who slept 4 or more hours less than their usual had 10.2 times the crash rate.
The study did have a few notable caveats:
- The data on how much sleep drivers got was self-reported.
- The study did not control for the use of alcohol or drugs;
- The study didn’t include crashes that occurred between midnight and 6 a.m., which means the sleep deprivation crash risk here is actually greatly underestimated. There are a number of other studies that show the prevalence and effect of sleep deprivation is actually greater during this time frame.
According to research from the National Sleep Foundation, someone who has slept 2 hours or less over a 24-hour period isn’t fit to operate a vehicle. Now, the results of the AAA study suggest that even people who have slept for 4 or 5 hours in the last 24 hours may be deemed “significantly impaired.”
This level of crash risk, when you compare it to someone who is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, suggests that someone who has only had 4 to 5 hours of sleep poses the same risk of an auto accident as someone who has a blood-alcohol level of 0.08. Meanwhile, someone who has slept four hours or less has a comparable crash risk to those who have a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.12 to 0.15.
A previous study by the AAA Foundation revealed that 21 percent of fatal auto accidents – or 1 in 5 – was caused at least in part by a tired driver. That’s approximately 6,000 fatal crashes in the U.S. every year – and it’s probably a low estimate.
Similar to alcohol impairment and distraction, drivers too often underestimate the risk and they overestimate their ability to fight fatigue behind the wheel. ‘
Interestingly, the foundation reported that older drivers are less likely to admit they drive while tired, although there is evidence to suggest they do it at similar rates as younger drivers. This is despite the fact that 95 percent of Americans report it’s “unacceptable” for someone to drive so tired they have trouble keeping their eyes open.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35 percent of people in the U.S. get less than the necessary 7 hours each night. Approximately 12 percent say they are getting on average 5 hours or less.
A foundation representative said people need to become more educated about the fact that they cannot miss sleep and expect to be able to function safely behind the wheel.
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Acute Sleep Deprivation and Risk of Motor Vehicle Crash Involvement, December 2016, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety
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