There isn't a snooze button on your dashboard

Drowsy driverNo one has to tell you that we live in a 24/7 world of continuous activity. If you allow it, demands can be placed on each of us every hour of every day, cutting into our rest and sleep schedules.

The University of Iowa, a national leader in drowsy driving research, recently hosted a first-in-the-nation Drowsy Driving Summit in Iowa City. The summit was headlined by Dr. Mark R. Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and an internationally recognized expert on human fatigue.

In his message to summit attendees, Rosekind noted that the number of traffic crashes attributed to drowsy driving is woefully underreported as investigating officers have little or no evidence of a driver being sleepy at the time of the crash. But to emphasize his point, he said that in studies where respondents were asked if they had driven drowsy, 60 percent said they had driven while sleepy and 37 percent admitted to dozing off behind the wheel.


Dr. Rosekind
NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark R. Rosekind

Research shows that degraded the sleep you get impacts every aspect of your life. Your reaction time, memory, communication, judgment, and mood are all negatively impacted when you don’t get enough quality sleep. “People are typically way off on their ability to judge how sleepy they are,” Rosekind said. “Because sleepiness can be so variable, most people think they are doing much better than they really are.”Rosekind continued to say that drowsy is a continuum. “It’s not like being drunk where once you are drunk you stay that way for a period of time. Drowsiness can come and go and performance will vary. That’s what makes this issue so complicated to address. Even a small lapse can be critical. A 50 millisecond lapse can mean a 5-foot difference in the position of your vehicle. That’s a lot if you’re in traffic.”

Society doesn’t help many of us get the rest we need. In general, our society promotes dashing off to one thing or another and we don’t give our body time to rest.  Our bodies have a natural circadian clock telling us when we need to sleep. Ignoring those clues from your body can get you into trouble.

“There’s a reason why the majority of crashes happen overnight and in the early afternoon,” said Rosekind. “These are the times our bodies are programmed to rest. Culture supports these attitudes and behaviors. We need a culture change.”

Graphic courtesy Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D.

How do safety professionals tackle this issue?
Recently, at Rosekind’s direction, NHTSA added drowsy to the three D’s of impairment that includes distracted, drunk, and drugged driving. Rosekind said, “This is a much larger problem than the data would indicate. We need to look for new, innovative ways to address drowsy driving.”

A recent study from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety analyzed NHTSA data and found that 7 percent of all crashes and 16.5 percent of fatal crashes involved drowsy driving. Dr. J. Stephen Higgins, from NHTSA’s Office of Behavioral and Safety Research said he suspects the number is closer to 20 percent. “If 20 percent of the fatal crashes have drowsiness as a factor, that’s $109 billion in societal costs. That’s just in fatality crashes and doesn’t take into account the even larger number of injury and property damage crashes.”

In November 2015, NHTSA held an event called “Asleep at the Wheel: A Nation of Drowsy Drivers.” Videos from this meeting and a document outlining next steps are available at To continue work on this topic, Higgins said NHTSA is in the planning stages for a 2017 national survey on drowsy driving.

What’s happening in Iowa?

Gov. Terry Branstad
Gov. Terry Branstad

Gov. Terry Branstad addressed the crowd of safety professionals, law enforcement, and others interested in the topic of drowsy driving stating that the work being done will set the stage for the 2017 legislative session.

Dr. Corinne Peek-Asa, associate dean for research in UI’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, reiterated the early assertion that drowsy driving is a very complicated issue. She also noted that the problem has reached the level of a public health issue.

Dr. Nazan Aksan, a neurology research scientist and engineer in UI’s Carver College of Medicine, has been studying sleep quality and driving safety tracking people sleep with a Fitbit® type of device for the participants and black box technology in the vehicles. The study asked participants to go about their daily routines. and found chronic sleep restrictions in daily life. She said that sensor technology didn’t match up well with the participant’s estimation of the amount and quality of sleep. She said, “We are very poor at estimating how much we sleep and how well. Poor quality sleep affects the quality of the driving task the next day.” UI research box

A lack of sleep isn’t the only reason we’re drowsy behind the wheel. Dr. Gary Miavetz, with UI’s College of Pharmacy, relayed information about how many prescriptions medications can impact the ability to skillfully operate a motor vehicle. He said his department is working with staff at the National Advanced Driving Simulator (NADS) to understand the implications of certain medications in hopes of creating guidelines for prescribing medicine in a way that provides a benefit and minimizes risk.

Dr. Tim Brown conducts research at the NADS. Research at that facility is focusing on how to alert drivers when they may be impaired. Two studies are being planned, one on short trips and one on longer duration drivers. He said, “Our biggest challenge is how do we change behavior when people have run out of resources at the end of the day, but they still feel the need to keep going.”

Can your car help you identify if you’re too tired to be behind the wheel?

McGeehee and Rosekind
Dr. Dan McGeehee and Dr. Mark Rosekind with UI's self-driving research vehicle.

Dr. Dan McGeehee, recently named NADS director, has done extensive research with vehicle automation and driver behavior. He said, “There is an avalanche of technologies, either here right now or coming soon, that can help drivers, including drowsiness alerts, lane departure warnings, lane keeping assist, automatic emergency braking – just to name a few.”

My car does what?
The university is working with the National Safety Council on a MyCarDoesWhat? program to learn more about how people interact with their vehicles. This national program seeks to educate drivers on new vehicle safety technologies designed to help prevent crashes. McGeehee said, “We have found 40 percent of drivers don’t understand all the technologies in their vehicles.”

No magic bullet
To close the summit, Rosekind reminded the group that while the problem is becoming more recognized, there is no magic bullet to solve the issue of drowsy driving. The 24/7 world we live in is in constant conflict with our biological design. He said, “This challenge is really hard.” But with that in mind, summits like these continue to bring awareness to the issue and highlight the need to find ways to educate drivers of the impact of their behavior behind the wheel. This summit is just another way Iowa is working towards their goal of Zero Fatalities on the state’s roads.

Dr. Rosekind spent time at the University of Iowa's National Advanced Driving Simulator and took part in a demonstration of TraumaHawk, a lifesaving app used by the University of Iowa Hospital and law enforcement. 

Rosekind collage




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