December 13, 2021

Are Night Shift Workers More at Risk for Drowsy Driving Accidents?

night drowsy driving

Driving drowsy can be as dangerous as drunk driving, and those who work night shifts pose the most risk for causing car accidents from repeated sleep deprivation. Worse, those awake for more than 20 hours can exhibit the same impairments of someone with a 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration, the legal limit for drunk driving.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define drowsy driving as the combination of driving while sleepy or fatigued either through lack of sleep, sleep disorders, or from working rotating or night shift hours. Fatigued drivers are known to exhibit many of the same actions as those of alcohol-impaired drivers, such as nodding off at the wheel, decreased reaction time, crossing lanes, and crashing.

Drowsy driving can impact any drivers, even those who do not work night shifts, and many people admit to driving while drowsy or falling asleep at the wheel on at least one occasion. Over nine million people in the United States work rotating or overnight shifts, meaning there is a high probability of encountering a fatigued driver during your morning commute.

Do Fatigued Drivers Pose Greater Risks to Other Motorists?

Drowsy driving contributes greatly to car accidents across the country. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drowsy driving led to 91,000 accidents in 2017, causing approximately 50,000 injuries, and 800 deaths. Sadly, the exact numbers are likely higher, as it is difficult to discern whether drowsy driving is the cause of some car accidents, particularly if the at-fault driver is killed.

AAA reported in 2010 that one out of six fatal car accidents were the result of drowsy driving, and in 2015 reported that over two percent of all fatalities involved fatigued drivers. Additionally, the NHTSA reports that of the $836 billion costs to society for traffic accidents, drowsy driving accounts for 13 percent of that cost.

How Does Sleep Deprivation Affect Drivers?

Several studies using driving simulators have been conducted on the effects of drowsy driving, but researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital recently conducted a significant study using real vehicle driving. Their findings were alarming.

Operating on a closed track, researchers observed 16 night shift workers operate a vehicle immediately following a work shift, and for comparison, another test after participants received five hours of sleep. For safety purposes, an observer in the passenger seat was equipped with an emergency brake to intervene and prevent collisions. To gauge alertness, the team studied eye movement and length of blinking. The study reported the following results:

  • After 45 minutes of driving, 11 of the 16 drivers had near-crashes after a work shift; none of the drivers tested after five hours of sleep had near-crash incidents.
  • Seven of the post-night shift drives were terminated early by the on-board observer for the driver losing control of the vehicle; none of the drives were terminated in those who had slept.
  • Sleep impairment was observed within the first 15 minutes, and instances of drowsy driving increased with the length of driving, with near-crashes and termination of drives happening consistently after 45 or more minutes. Observers noted numerous instances of micro-sleep episodes, falling asleep for less than three seconds, following the 30-minute mark. None were recorded in the drivers after sleeping.
  • Post-night shift drivers demonstrated a higher rate of crossing traffic lanes than during the test drives after sleeping.
  • Eye movements and longer blink durations were considerably higher in the sleep-deprived tests versus those with five hours of sleep.

Are Some Drivers More Affected by Fatigue than Others?

The nature of shift work can be in direct opposition to the body’s normal, natural functions and could lead to some serious sleep disorders. Shift work sleep disorder (SWSD) is a chronic condition affecting those who do not work traditional day hours, such as rotating shift or night shift workers. The condition results from disruption of the body’s natural circadian rhythm, or internal clock. According to the Cleveland Clinic, repeated adjusting of one’s sleep and awake schedules can result in significant trouble with sleeping when desired, falling asleep and staying asleep.

Those suffering from SWSD experience higher instances of mood shifts or irritability; work errors or accidents; impaired functioning; decreased coping skills; drug and alcohol dependency; and health deterioration, including cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and metabolic disorders.

The Cleveland Clinic estimates that up to 40 percent of the population may suffer from a sleep disorder, with over two million of those possibly suffering from SWSD. The clinic recommends at least seven to nine hours of sleep daily, but those suffering SWSD routinely experience one to four hours less.

How Can I Prevent Drowsy Driving when I Work Night Shifts?

If you or a family member work rotating or night shifts, there are some measures you can take to help prevent an accident from drowsy driving.

  • Shorter driving time: The longer you drive, the more likely you are to become impaired from fatigue, increasing your risk of causing an accident. On the days you work, consider staying at a hotel or share an apartment with coworkers if you have an especially long commute. Ideally, relocating closer to your place of employment is the best solution.
  • Carpool: Having one or more people in the car with you can help you remain alert, either through conversation or another being able to drive if you are too fatigued to do so. Rotating carpool driving with a group of coworkers who live near you can lessen the burden of driving on everyone, help prevent accidents, and save driving costs.
  • Public transportation: If you live close enough to your place of employment, consider taking public transportation, such as a bus, train, or metro system, rather than driving yourself. This will prevent drowsy driving accidents and can also be a less expensive option for you.
  • Napping: If possible, use a portion of your lunch break to power nap. Studies have shown that even 20 minutes can increase your alertness and motor skills, and 30 to 60 minutes improves brain connections and problem-solving abilities that can help in split-second driving reactions.
  • Engage: Keeping your brain engaged can help you from becoming drowsy. If you cannot carpool with another person, listen to talk radio or play some stimulating music you like. Using hands-free technology, you could call a friend. Each of these methods keep your mind awake, alert, and more focused.

What if I Am Involved in a Car Accident with a Drowsy Driver?

As previously stated, drowsy driving contributes significantly to overall accidents in the United States. Unfortunately, many of the accidents involving a sleep-deprived driver also result in potentially catastrophic or fatal injuries, including brain and spinal cord injuries, broken or amputated limbs, burns, internal organ damage, and other trauma.

Damages inflicted by drowsy drivers can alter lives, causing permanent pain, disabilities, and impairment, and reducing overall quality of life for the victims.

Norristown Car Accident Lawyers at Anthony C. Gagliano III, P.C. Advocate for Those Injured by Drowsy Drivers

Car accidents can be traumatic, both physically and mentally. If you or a loved one was injured in an accident caused by a drowsy driver, reach out to the experienced Norristown car accident lawyers at Anthony C. Gagliano III, P.C. Our legal team will advocate to obtain the compensation for which you are entitled. Call us at 267-861-7100 or visit our website to set up a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients in Philadelphia, Montgomery County, Delaware County, and Norristown.