Fatalities Due to Drowsy Driving Crashes Are 10X Higher Than Reported

As clocks spring forward for Daylight Saving Time on Sunday, the risk of drowsy driving crashes will also jump.

Research has found that crashes tend to increase in the days following the spring time change as drivers get behind the wheel while sleep-deprived and with their circadian rhythms out of whack. Previous AAA studies have outlined the risks associated with drowsy driving: drivers who slept for less than five hours the night before may have a crash risk comparable to driving drunk, and losing just a couple hours of sleep can double the risk of a crash.

Official statistics on the prevalence of drowsy driving have long been underestimated, since most drivers don’t admit to being drowsy after a collision. Now, new research from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows just how underreported these crashes are. According to the study, AAA estimates that drowsy driving is a factor in 10 times as many traffic fatalities as traditional crash data indicates.

The study, based on in-depth crash investigations and national fatal crash data, estimates that 18 percent of traffic fatalities between 2017 and 2021 involved a tired driver. A total of nearly 30,000 people died in those crashes. In 2021 alone, an estimated 6,725 people were killed in drowsy driving crashes – far higher than the 684 deaths reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In Massachusetts, between 2021 and 2023, there were 2,962 crashes where police indicated that drowsiness, fatigue or a driver falling asleep was a contributing factor, according to the state’s IMPACT crash data portal. That number likely also understates the extent of the problem.

 “We’ve long known that drowsy driving crashes are underreported, but learning just how common they are is alarming,” said Mark Schieldrop, Senior Spokesperson for AAA Northeast. “This new research is a wake-up-call and highlights sleep deprivation as a major traffic safety and public health concern. As Americans move their clocks ahead by one hour this weekend, they need to remember to monitor their sleep schedule to prevent drowsiness on the road. Remember, the only substitute for a lack of sleep is sleep.”

While 95 percent of drivers surveyed by AAA perceive drowsy driving to be very or extremely dangerous, 18 percent reported having engaged in the behavior in the past 30 days. In the bustle of modern life, many families forego sleep to meet their work, school and social obligations. And additional AAA research has found that drivers consistently underestimate how drowsy they are behind the wheel. Tragically, losing sleep is also causing loss of life on our roadways.

Marian Berkowitz, founder of the Drowsy Driving Project, lost her brother, Jim, in a drowsy driving crash when he was just 24.

“He fell asleep at the wheel on a Monday night after the clock change while driving back to his school,” Berkowitz said.  “Drivers should be aware they may be more tired than usual in the days following the time change, which can disrupt our sleep patterns. What happened to my brother Jim could have happened to anyone.”

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