Why Isn't the NHTSA Launching a Campaign On Driving Under a Sleep Deprived State?


Each year, thousands of new drivers get their license in the U.S., many of whom, are young teens. With the help of driver’s education, they learn some of the most critical aspects of road safety that have been proven to save lives, including their own. Seat belt safety, for example, is not only mandatory by law, but widely accepted by most drivers and it’s clear why. Statistics show that since 1975, seat belts have been responsible for saving an estimated 255,000 lives (1). With 214 million drivers on the road in the U.S. as of 2014, wearing a seat belt while driving not only stands to greatly reduce the risk of fatality or injury to oneself in the event of an accident, but to all passengers and drivers involved (2).

Click It or Ticket

With the high rate of motor vehicle accidents each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has turned much of their attention to seat belt safety. Launching “Click It or Ticket” in its earliest stages in 1993, and officially in 2003, the campaign served to warn drivers of the importance of wearing their seat belts through targeted advertising, most of which has been aimed at teens and young adults (3). Though the success of “Click It or Ticket” has been undeniable, with the NHTSA continuing to promote it to this day, they’ve yet to launch a campaign on the same scale outlining other important safety measures.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

While seat belt safety accounts for a large number of lives lost and saved, other issues, such as driving while sleep deprived, bring with them concerning statistics, too. The NHTSA themselves, in fact, have reported that drowsy driving is a factor in over 100,000 crashes each year in the U.S. alone. As a result of those 100,000 crashes, 1,550 deaths and a staggering 71,000 injuries occur. Unfortunately, because it’s so difficult to determine when fatigue comes into play, those numbers may actually underestimate the true impact of sleep deprivation on driving.

Though sleep deprivation and fatigue raise some serious questions regarding road safety, you’d be hard pressed to find the same level of information through the NHTSA’s website as that pertaining to seat beat usage. Though it stands to reason that more attention should be brought to light about sleep deprivation while driving, it remains in the shadows as other issues deemed more important get the lion’s share of media coverage and focus.

Unregulated and Undocumented

If you’re asking yourself why, there are likely a number of reasons. Apart from the obvious life-saving capabilities of using a seat belt, many drivers wear them simply because of their mandatory nature. In the name of the campaign itself, “Click It or Ticket”, driver’s are not warned to wear their seat belt in order to save lives, but rather to avoid getting issued a pricey ticket. Bloomberg reports that, while seat belt usage has increased since the campaign’s launch in 2003, states also stand to make quite a profit from it. Nebraska, for example, in a two-week period, typically around Memorial Day, in which law enforcement blitz the campaign, generates an estimated $750,000 versus the $400,000 they would make in a normal two weeks (5). It’s obvious then, that there is an incentive for law makers to choose to enforce a campaign that would make money rather than one that would only cost money. Drowsy driving, while a very real danger, is unfortunately unregulated and issuing tickets to nap, as it were, isn’t possible at this time. Without this incentive, an issue such as this tends to be placed on the back burner.

Similarly, driving drowsy is mostly undocumented. While the number of accidents known to be related to sleepy driving is far more than we’d like, those numbers don’t quite match those related to accidents in which drivers and passengers suffer death or injury from not wearing a seat belt. This isn’t necessarily because they aren’t as high, but rather because it’s nearly impossible to know for sure whether fatigue played a role, as sleepiness is not something that can be tested after the fact or measured against a set standard. Sleep deprivation may be responsible for more crashes and accidents than initially suspected, but without the figures to back such a claim up, it’s an issue that isn’t given much attention. Without the cause for concern, studies and research conducted to determine its effects aren’t funded in the same way as issues deemed more pressing are.

The Rise of Naps & Sleep Deprivation Safety

One could argue that the reasons sleep deprivation isn’t given the same attention as wearing a seat belt is, are the very same reasons it should be. With many of the safety implications of driving in a sleep deprived state left unknown or undocumented, it’s important then to focus attention to what could potentially be a more serious issue than most ever expected. What we do know is enough cause for concern, such as the scary number of people who have admitted to having fallen asleep while driving (6). We also already know the only way to combat it: rest. Instead of trying to figure out the solution to a serious issue, such as figuring out how to make drivers wear their seat belts, sleep deprivation is a unique situation in which we know the solution but don’t yet have the whole picture to present to the public. Napping is, by all accounts, the best way to combat sleep deprivation on the road, and it’s something that can be done quite easily. The way in which freeway exits are staggered, for example, ensures that rest stops are almost always accessible, and that pulling off to take a nap is, more often than not, possible.

Promoting the idea would also be rather simple in theory. For most road rules, signs exist along the road to remind drivers of their importance and enforcement. Driver’s are constantly reminded of the speed limit, for example, with some signs even stating the dollar amount of the fine for going over the limit. Similarly, many digital freeway signs echo the sentiments of the “Click It or Ticket” campaign and encourage drivers to wear their seat belts. Such signage would be easily implemented and could serve as a reminder for drivers that if they’re feeling tired, to pull off the road and nap.

Should the NHTSA acknowledge sleep deprived driving in a more accurate light, they could potentially be the catalyst for real change and increased research and study into the area. As it stands, however, sleep deprivation and fatigue while driving is underestimated by most drivers. Without a detailed and targeted campaign to raise awareness, stressing the importance of not only napping, but getting sufficient sleep, it will, unfortunately, likely remain that way.

By Karim Zouiyen
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