We Need a Stronger Stigma Against Drowsy Driving

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Photo: Bill McCay/Getty Images

Few laws inspire less controversy than the prohibition of driving while intoxicated. And with good reason: According to 2010 data, drunk driving costs the United States $132 billion per year, and nearly one third of all American traffic-related deaths are because of alcohol impairment. 

Early Saturday morning, though, a different kind of dangerous driving made the news: drowsy driving. After their limo was struck by a tractor-trailer driver named Kevin Roper who had reportedly not slept for over 24 hours and was dozing at the wheel, Tracy Morgan was hospitalized (and remains in critical condition), while his fellow comedian and friend James McNair died. And while it’s impossible to know exactly why Roper dozed off, the crash highlights the problem the U.S. has with regards to drowsy driving: It isn’t stigmatized nearly enough.

Driving drowsy is, after all, an extremely dangerous behavior. Even without falling asleep at the wheel, as Roper likely did, “Drowsiness slows reaction time, makes drivers less attentive, and impairs decision-making skills, all of which can contribute to motor vehicle crashes,” according to the Center for Disease Control. And the National Sleep Foundation cites a study showing that being being awake for 18 hours produced an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .05, and .10 after 24 hours; .08 is considered legally drunk.

It also seems to be a fairly common occurrence — though how common is hard to say, since it’s a difficult thing to measure. The CDC notes that some studies have estimated that “15% to 33% of fatal crashes might involve drowsy drivers.” Even if the actual figure is toward the lower end of this spectrum of estimates, given Americans' propensity for getting into car accidents, that would translate to a sizable number of accidents and deaths every year.

Despite all this, people don’t take drowsy driving as seriously as they do better-publicized (and -demonized) public-safety hazards. In a 2012 Public Attitude Survey conducted by the U.K.’s Ministry of Justice, for example, only 38 percent of subjects responded that they had never driven tired, compared to 95 percent of respondents who said they hadn't driven drunk, and 91 percent who said they had never texted while driving. Self-report surveys can be iffy, but this suggests there's much less of a stigma attached to drowsy driving. And even when people claim to understand the dangers of it, they often don't heed the warnings: A study by the AAA Foundation found that while "[t]he majority of drivers (96.3%) expressed disapproval of those who drive when they have trouble keeping their eyes open," "[m]ore than one-in-four (26.3%) drivers who believe it is completely unacceptable to drive in this compromised state, however, admitted doing so in the last month." 

Clearly, at some level, society recognizes the danger posed by tired drivers: That's why there are laws in place to prevent professional drivers from spending too much time on the road without sufficient rest. Yet there hasn’t been the same PR-campaign push to stigmatize drowsy driving that helped tamp down on drunk driving and texting while driving. And that would be the easiest solution here, since researchers have shown that social stigmas are often a much more effective way to get people to change undesirable behaviors than providing them with dry statistics about danger and death.

Texting and driving is a prime example. Until not too long ago, it was standard to see people doing it openly. But as public-safety researchers have come to understand just how bad an idea it is, they've begun to effectively stigmatize it: Obama's secretaries of Transportation made it a priority; Werner Herzog made a film about it; and there are now terrifying public service announcements like this one from the U.K. (don't hit play if you're squeamish):

All of this advocacy helped ensure not only that people would think twice about texting and driving themselves, but that they would nag their friends and family members to do the same. Today, if you whip out a phone while behind the wheel, your friend in the passenger seat is likely to give you an earful for it; there's no reason driving while tired shouldn't follow the same trajectory over the next few years.

So the next time you feel tired behind the wheel, find somewhere to pull over and take a nap or switch drivers — and pressure your friends to do the same. And public-safety experts, get working on an anti-drowsy-driving campaign. But ideally one a bit more serious than this.