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Best of SHC: What is drowsy driving, anyway?

Drowsy driving

Drowsy driving happens not only when you fall asleep at the wheel, but also when you are drowsy, but still awake.

What is Drowsy Driving? A definition

Drowsy driving is defined by the National Sleep Foundation’s Drowsy Driving page in this way:

Definitions of drowsy driving or driver fatigue rely on how the concept of “fatigue” is defined.

Fatigue is a general term commonly used to describe the experience of being “sleepy,” “tired,” “drowsy,” or “exhausted.”

While all of these terms have different meanings in research and clinical settings, they tend to be used interchangeably in the traffic safety and transportation fields.


What causes sleepiness? What causes fatigue?

The National Sleep Foundation offers these observations about why we are feeling so tired all the time:

There are many underlying causes of sleepiness, fatigue and drowsy driving…

…including sleep loss from restriction or too little sleep, interruption or fragmented sleep; chronic sleep debt; circadian factors associated with driving patterns or work schedules; undiagnosed or untreated sleep disorders; time spent on a task; the use of sedating medications; and the consumption of alcohol when already tired.

These factors have cumulative effects and a combination of any of these can greatly increase one’s risk for a fatigue-related crash.


Know the symptoms of sleepiness and fatigue

Finally, the National Sleep Foundation asserts that the following can can directly impact driving:
  • Problems with information processing and short-term memory
  • Decreased performance, vigilance and motivation
  • Increased moodiness and aggressive behaviors
  • Impaired reaction time, judgment and vision

The NCSDR/NHTSA* Expert Panel on Driver Fatigue and Sleepiness examines the serious nature of drowsy driving in this thorough report. 

*NCSDR = The National Center on Sleep Disorders Research of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health). NHTSA = The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


This post first appeared in SHC on November 3, 2014.


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