Car Culture: Waking up to the risks of drowsy driving

Phil Berg
Special to The Detroit News

Mitsubishi’s new chairman, Carlos Ghosn, used to sleep just four hours a night when he took charge of both Nissan and Renault in 1999.

These days, the super-CEO, who continues to run Nissan and Renault, says he’s learned to get more shut-eye: “If I don’t do six hours of sleep I’m in bad shape, but I’m usually up by six,” he reported.

On average, however, that’s not the best lifestyle for driving. But it’s not uncommon in our workaholic culture, I believe.

Experts often quote a New Zealand study that showed drivers having gone 17 hours without sleep performed some driving tests on equivalent or worse levels than a driver with a blood-alcohol content of 0.05 percent. The study found that, “After longer periods without sleep, performance reached levels equivalent to the maximum alcohol dose given to subjects of a BAC of 0.1 percent.” That’s higher than the legal limit in Michigan and most states.

As the workaholic culture trickles down to high schools, the risk of drowsy driving by students is being noticed. Results of a study released this month by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), says that of 2,500 licensed teens surveyed in American high schools, 56 percent of them said they’ve driven when they’re too tired and 10 percent say they’ve fallen asleep while driving.

“Drowsiness impairs driving performance and reaction time,” said William Horrey, Ph.D., principal research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety. “When our brains are tired, our attention, judgment and ability to act are greatly impacted, which has the potential for disaster on the road, particularly if there’s inclement weather or a critical situation requiring quick response. The situation can be exacerbated when the driver is a teenager without much experience. If parents, however, address this issue head on, they can foster safer driving practices to help remind their teens the importance of staying alert on the road.”

Most interesting to me in the Liberty Mutual survey is that only 11 percent of parents believed their driving children were affected by not getting enough sleep, while 39 percent of the kids thought they weren’t getting enough sleep.

Driving drowsy is dangerous. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recorded 41,000 injuries from drowsy driving-related crashes between 2009 to 2013, and 846 deaths in 2014, and some estimates put the death toll much higher.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety estimates that 300,000 crashes every year involve a drowsy driver in some way, and contribute to up to 6,400 deaths. That figure was quoted in a forum held in May at Harvard University by sleep researcher Charles Czeisler, who says “sleep-deficient driving” is a result of drivers’ adrenaline levels preventing them from being aware they are drowsy.

Even autonomous cars may not be a solution to drowsy driving, added Jay Winsten, associate dean at Harvard’s School of Public Health and a leading proponent for “designated driver” campaigns, who said that autonomous cars could remove drivers’ sense of accountability for their own drowsy driving.

Volvo was the first automaker to introduce a drowsy driving alert in 2007, followed by Mercedes, VW and Ford. These systems monitor steering wheel movements and suggest drivers stop and take a nap or a jolt of caffeine, but they don’t cover all drowsy behaviors. The technology is improving, but still, I’m agreeing with Harvard’s Winsten, that it’s not the responsibility of the car to keep us drivers awake.

Mark Rosekind, head of NHTSA, said at the Harvard forum: “Not everyone drinks and drives or texts while driving. But everyone gets tired, and far too often drivers are putting themselves and others at risk by getting behind the wheel without the sleep they need.”