November 5-12 is Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, a week championed by the National Sleep Foundation to increase awareness of the dangers of drowsy driving. Though bills to prevent this have been introduced in the United States as early as 1997, it’s not until recently that people have started realizing what a danger driving while tired can be.
The purpose of Drowsy Driving Prevention Week is to draw attention to sleep deprivation impairment. Many assume that driving tired isn’t as bad as driving under the influence, or push themselves to drive home after long shifts at work. The culture of pushing yourself to your absolute limits has had a substantial effect on the transportation industry; in many places, it’s not unheard of for truck drivers to take 18-hour shifts, and taxi drivers routinely do the same.
Drowsy Driving Prevention Week has effected change in some ways, however. Drastic alternations are being made every day to make the streets safer, both for those behind the wheels and those riding shotgun.
Drowsy Driving: An Overview
Drowsy driving is loosely defined as driving while tired enough for driving skills to be affected. However, although it presents risks similar to driving drunk, the general public is severely undereducated about the dangers of being fatigued behind the wheel. The need for public knowledge lead the National Sleep Foundation to start a week dedicated to education about the effects this can have, and what can be changed to help.
In a 2005 poll, the National Sleep Foundation found that, in the past year, 60% of adult drivers have driven a vehicle while fatigued, and approximately 37% have actually fallen asleep. Considering that in the last 10 years, the economy has changed such that people are even more encouraged to get less sleep and do more work, there’s a high chance that number has increased.
It’s hard to definitively prove how dangerous fatigued driving is; unlike drunk driving, there are no specific tests that can be done on a fatigued driver. However, an Australian study showed that being awake for 18 hours was as impairing as a blood alcohol content of .05, which rose to .10 after 24 hours. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also estimates that in 2013, fatigued driving was responsible for at least 72,000 crashes and 800 fatal accidents.
Drowsy Driving Laws
Because of the risks, there has been a significant push to introduce laws that criminalize driving after a specific amount of time. However, in the United States, there are no federal laws based around fatigued driving, so the burden falls upon the states. As of December 2016, only two states, Arkansas and New Jersey, have official legislation that criminalizes fatigued driving; both states define “fatigued” as being without sleep for 24 consecutive hours.
Taxis are similarly state-regulated. The only state that has a system set up to track taxi drivers’ consecutive work times is New York, which limits licensed drivers to 10 hours in a 24-hour period and up to 60 hours in a single week. There has been substantial pushback to this legislation; taxi drivers have spoken out vehemently about the potential drop in income that this could cause for many of them.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration does federally regulate fatigued drivers that operate commercial vehicles, defined as a vehicle weighing over 26,000 pounds. However, their wording is hazy, disallowing impairment “through fatigue, illness, or any other cause, as to make it unsafe for him/her to begin or continue to operate the commercial motor vehicle.” Truckers routinely take shifts in excess of 12 hours in order to get their cargo to the destination as quickly as possible. The monetary incentives offered for quicker deliveries only encourage the worrying amount of sleep deprivation these drivers go through regularly.
Freelance Drowsy Driving Regulation
Not all professional drivers are employees, however. With the rise of Uber and Lyft, everyday people can drive freelance, signing up to transport people with their own cars. However, the freelance aspect of these new companies makes it even more difficult to regulate fatigued drivers on a company-wide basis.
Uber and Lyft have both spoken publicly about drowsy driving, with Uber focusing more on how their service can help fatigued people and Lyft focusing more on their freelancers. Uber has adopted a 12-hour limit for consecutive shifts in New York City, but does not currently regulate outside the state. Lyft requires that drivers take a 6-hour break for every 14 hours of driving, with a few states having state-specific regulations.
A big problem that freelance driving regulations have is that there are many companies that use freelance drivers, and they’re wary of sharing information with each other. As people have pointed out, many freelancers use more than one app, and there’s currently nothing stopping them from switching between apps to circumvent the regulations. Transportation apps would have to pool their data and keep track of drivers together, and that’s just not something they’re interested in doing.
Most people assume that drivers working long shifts for their company is a good thing. After all, it’s making the company more money, and that can’t be a bad thing. The truth of the matter is that drowsy driving is dangerous. It’s bad for drivers and passengers, and that can easily lead to lawsuits and damage claims that harm the company tremendously.
While many companies enact some kind of regulations for their drivers, they’re not always enforced, and it’s doing far more harm than good. Educating drivers on the dangers of drowsy driving and enforcing rules to keep them off the streets when they’re a danger to others is the only way the transportation industry is going to grow and thrive while also keeping customers safe.