The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that at least 100,000 auto accidents, 40,000 injuries and 1,550 deaths occur in the U.S. every year as the result of motorists dozing off while behind the wheel. In a new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of every 24 adults surveyed reported that they had nodded off at the wheel at least once during the previous month. Many experts say the number is probably much higher than reported because drivers are often not cognizant of the times they have dozed off for only a second or two – so called “micro-sleep”. Even such brief lapses, however, can have deadly consequences when you consider that a vehicle traveling at 60 mph travels about four to five car lengths in that amount of time.
The study’s lead author, Anne Wheaton, finds the results unsettling. “If I’m on the road,” said Wheaton, “I’d be a little worried about the other drivers.” Similar studies, including a 2005 survey by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), were even more alarming. Compared to the four percent of drivers who reported dozing off at the wheel in the previous month, the NSF study reported that a full 60 percent of respondents said they had driven while drowsy at least once during the previous year, and 13 percent admitted to falling asleep at the wheel on a regular basis. Four percent of participants in the NSF study said that drowsiness had resulted in their being involved in an accident or near accident.
A number of automakers, including Lexus and Mercedes-Benz have developed technologies that detect certain driving behaviors and warn the driver prior to an accident occurring. One such technology identifies erratic steering, while another one uses a camera to look for signs of drowsiness on the driver’s face. If signs of fatigue are detected, the system sounds an alarm or flashes a warning light located somewhere on the vehicle’s instrument panel.
Ford’s optional Lane-Keeping Assist system can be ordered with a forward-facing camera that detects erratic driving and alerts the motorist of impending dangers.