All About Driver Fatigue

Driver Fatigue Jacoby & Meyers, LLP

With an estimated 70 percent of truck drivers operating big rigs while fatigued—even in spite of new record-keeping rules that seek to prevent a driver from staying on the road for too many hours—trucking industry experts have praised new technology that will alert drowsy drivers when it is time to pull over.

The technology has evolved from earlier solutions, which included a driver-facing camera that registered how many times the driver’s eyelids drooped while driving. Today, wearable tech, including vests, caps, wristbands, and eye wear, track a host of indicators of fatigue, such as the duration of an eye blink, the degree of active monitoring the driver does of road conditions, and even whether the driver’s head bobs (which could indicate sleepiness).

We welcome these technological advances, but they still fall short of fixing the epidemic of driver fatigue that plagues U.S. roads. Driver fatigue affects all drivers, not just truckers. It factors into tens of thousands of crashes every year, and likely goes vastly underreported.

Read on for more information about the extreme hazards of driving while fatigued, and how an experienced New York motor vehicle accident injury lawyer can help if you suffer injuries in a fatigue-related crash.

What Is Driver Fatigue?

Driver fatigue is a state of physical or mental exhaustion behind the wheel that results in a driver feeling the need to sleep. Fatigue triples a driver’s risk of getting into an accident, according to the National Safety Council.

Causes

Some of the common contributors to drowsy driving include:

  • Lack of sleep. Most adults require seven to nine hours of sleep each night to maintain optimal function. Troublingly, public health data show that over one-third of adults in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state region sleep fewer than seven hours per night, on average.
  • Sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder in which a person’s breathing temporarily pauses during sleep. These periods of breathing cessation can happen dozens of times during the course of the sleep, leaving a person feeling tired even after getting the recommended amount of sleep (which, as we mentioned above, frequently does not happen for many adults here in the New York metro region).
  • Late night driving or working. Most people’s circadian rhythm inclines them to sleep during late night hours, which means their bodies shift into a sleep-favorable mode more easily during those times.
  • Substance use. Alcohol, medication, and illegal drugs can induce dangerous drowsiness in drivers, and can have a compounding effect when drivers take to the wheel already tired or under other circumstances favorable for sleep.
  • Poor health and diet. A person in relatively poor health or who suffers from poor nutrition (both of which are frequent problems for truckers) will tend to feel fatigued more easily.
  • Pre-driving exertion. Extreme physical exertion before driving can result in a driver feeling tired behind the wheel.
  • Frequent travel. Travel can disrupt a person’s natural sleep rhythms in many ways. Changing time zones induces the well-known phenomenon of jet lag. Even traveling within the same time zone, however, can substantially affect a person’s sleep-clock. Traveling itself takes a toll on the body through stress and (in air travel) dehydration. The body’s sleep clock can also feel significant effects from variations between a person’s origin and destination in the time and duration of daylight (such as when a person travels from New York to Miami).
  • Daylight savings time. The twice-per-year shift in clock time wreaks havoc on many people’s circadian rhythms, resulting in increased traffic accident rates (not to mention a rash of health emergencies).

Effects

Fatigue impairs driving in much the same manner as drinking alcohol.

Some of the deficits fatigue creates in a driver’s abilities include:

  • Slower reaction time;
  • Motor impairments that make it difficult to stay in a lane;
  • Situational inattention/distraction;
  • Impaired judgment and decision-making;
  • Microsleeping, defined as 4-5 second periods of unconsciousness. A driver may not even realize bouts of microsleep, which is cause for alarm considering that at highway speeds, a vehicle will travel the length of a football field or more during these momentary blackouts.

Warning Signs

Signs of driver fatigue include:

  • Excessive yawning or blinking.
  • Nodding off or difficulty holding one’s head up.
  • Inability to remember the last few miles driven.
  • Missing road signs or turns.
  • Difficulty maintaining speed.
  • Drifting into another lane of travel or needing to make sudden, small course corrections.

The Dangers of Drowsy/Fatigued Driving

How dangerous is fatigued driving? Consider these statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Up to 6,000 people die in the United States as a result of drowsy driving every year.
  • At least 72,000 accidents a year result from fatigued driving.
  • At least 44,000 injuries result from fatigued driving annually.
  • One in 25 drivers report having fallen asleep at the wheel within the past 30 days.

Dangers of Fatigue in the Commercial Transportation Industry

Recently, a Megabus from Pittsburgh carrying 47 passengers crashed on I-80 in New Jersey. Five of the passengers were treated for minor injuries and the others were stuck on the side of the road for two hours until another Megabus arrived to take them on to New York. Passengers reported that they’d screamed at the driver to pull over after he started swerving near State College, Pennsylvania. At that point, the driver pulled over and explained to the passengers that the wind was making the bus hard to handle. However, a couple of hours later, the bus allegedly rear-ended a tractor trailer. At least one passenger believes that the driver fell asleep behind the wheel.

The drivers of commercial motor vehicles—those transporting passengers or products—must follow hours of service rules that limit the number of hours they can drive without taking a break, and how much off-duty time they must take between work shifts. The regulations aim to reduce the number of accidents and fatalities related to driver fatigue among commercial truck and transportation drivers. Unfortunately (in our view), few states have any similar laws or regulations applicable to drivers of passenger cars.

About New Jersey’s Maggie’s Law

New Jersey is one of just two states that makes driving while knowingly fatigued a punishable offense. The New Jersey law banning fatigued driving is known as Maggie’s Law and was named for a 20-year-old college student who was killed when a driver crossed three lanes of traffic and struck her car head-on in 1997.

The driver admitted that he had not slept in 30 hours and had been under the influence of drugs, but got off with a $200 fine because the state had no law against falling asleep behind the wheel. Maggie’s mother, Carole McDonnell, lobbied for the law, which defines fatigue as going without sleep for more than 24 consecutive hours. According to the law, knowingly driving while fatigued constitutes recklessness and subjects drivers to criminal punishment for vehicular homicide if they cause a fatal accident.

Although Maggie’s Law is a rare statute that explicitly defines fatigued driving as a potential criminal offense, many states generally outlaw reckless driving.

Preventing Fatigued Driving Accidents

The National Traffic Safety Administration offers the following tips to help prevent causing or getting into a drowsy driving accident:

  • If you plan to take a road trip, then get a good night’s sleep before you travel.
  • Monitor your teen driver’s sleep habits. Teens need even more sleep than adults, but rarely get enough of it, making them particularly susceptible to causing a drowsy driving crash.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol before driving. Not only does alcohol increase the risks associated with impaired driving, it can also worsen the effect of existing drowsiness.
  • Take someone with you when driving at night to help you stay focused and alert. The majority of drowsy driving accidents occur in the late night hours and involve a driver who has no other occupants in the car.
  • Check your prescription and over-the-counter medication for warnings about drowsiness as a side-effect. Avoid driving while using medication that makes you sleepy.
  • Avoid driving between the hours of midnight to 6 AM, when your circadian rhythm tells your body that you should sleep.
  • If you feel yourself getting drowsy while driving, pull over to sleep if possible. A nap as short as 45 minutes will usually provide enough rest for you to complete your journey. If sleep is not possible, caffeine or a 100-calorie snack can sometimes offer a short-term solution. However, even after consuming caffeine or eating a light snack, an extremely drowsy driver may still experience dangerous microsleep episodes. Never rely on caffeine, energy drinks, legal or illegal drugs, or snacks, as a substitute for sleep.
  • Be aware that other methods of keeping yourself awake while driving do not work, such as opening a window, turning on the air conditioning, and playing loud music. In fact, many drivers find that the cold air from the air conditioning or open window makes them even more sleepy (because cooler air promotes restful sleep).
  • Sleep apnea is a common disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness, loud snoring when asleep, gasping for air while sleeping, a dry mouth upon awakening, and difficulty paying attention while awake. If you suspect that you suffer from sleep apnea, talk to your doctor about being tested for the condition and about treatments that can help alleviate its symptoms.

If a Fatigued Driver Causes an Accident That Injures You

If a fatigued driver causes an accident that leaves you injured or mourning the tragic loss of a loved one, then you likely have the right to take legal action seeking compensation for your injuries. An experienced motor vehicle accident injury lawyer can help.

A lawsuit seeking compensation for car accident injuries is known as a civil legal action. It is separate and distinct from any criminal prosecution of the driver. Even if a driver does not face criminal charges for causing a fatigue-related crash, you likely still have the right to seek compensation through a lawsuit.

To prove that someone owes you money damages for a fatigued driving accident, your lawyer will generally have to collect evidence to prove that:

  • An individual or entity owed you a duty of care not to make decisions or take actions that put you in harm’s way;
  • The individual or entity violated that duty through dangerous decisions or actions; and
  • Those decisions or actions caused the fatigued driving accident and your resulting injuries.

In most, but not necessarily all, fatigued driving accident cases, the fatigued driver (and the driver’s auto insurance provider) will have legal liability to pay you compensation for your injuries and losses. Sometimes other parties may share that liability, however, because their decisions or actions made them answerable for the fatigued driver’s behavior, or even contributed to causing the accident independent of the driver’s fatigue.

For example:

  • A medical provider or drug manufacturer who failed to warn a driver about drowsiness side-effects of a prescription medication;
  • A commercial driver’s employer who fails to enforce (or encourages violation of) hours of service rules; and
  • A bar or restaurant that serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated, soon-to-be driver.

Every car accident has its own unique circumstances, so the identity of who may have legal liability for a crash will vary widely. However, as lawyers with decades of experience representing victims of area motor vehicle accidents, we suspect fatigue plays an outsized, and underreported, role in many injury-causing and fatal crashes. As the dangerous effects of fatigued driving have come into greater focus, our team has made a point of exploring driver fatigue as a cause—and a source of potential legal liability—in an increasing number of the car accident cases we take.

Has a car accident inflicted devastation on you or your family? If so, you deserve experienced, skilled, diligent legal representation. Contact a motor vehicle accident injury attorney today for a free case evaluation.

Personal Injury Law