You have no idea how many people die from driving tired in this country year after year.
A recent forum from the Harvard School of Health (that you can watch here) discussed just how bad driving tired is, even though you don’t really think of it as a major killer. Among the panelists was Charles Czeisler, Director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, who gave a brief summary:
It’s amazing that driving is such a routine, highly-over-learned task that the sleep deprived brain can actually seize control when sleep pressure is high enough and involuntarily make the transition from wakefulness to sleep. And so it’s particularly concerning that 56 million Americans a month admit that they drive when they haven’t gotten enough sleep and they are exhausted.
8 million of them lose the struggle to stay awake and actually admit to falling asleep at the wheel every month—causing more than a million crashes every year, 50,000 debilitating injuries such as the one that is in the public service announcement from The Huffington Post, and 6,400 deaths. That’s two 9/11's every year relating to sleep deficient driving.
It’s an interesting panel, and I recommend listening to Scientific American’s brief recap, which highlights just how commonplace tired driving is, and how the people who feel most immune to it (young people) are the most biologically at risk (your ability to keep yourself from falling asleep improves as you age).
But to me, it’s the numbers that are the most shocking. Nearly six and a half thousand deaths a year. Contrast that to, say, even the largest and most terrifying auto recall in history, the Takata airbag nightmare. It’s a multi-million vehicle recall, horrific in its explosive failures. And even then we are talking about a dozen people getting killed.
It makes perfect sense to direct headlines at the Takata recall, particularly given how infuriatingly preventable it was. But in terms of a threat to you, society, and public health, it’s nothing compared to people feeling compelled to get on the road tired.
Part of the problem might be their name, calling it “drowsy driving,” which sounds pretty low key. Another part is just how normal it all is. We live in a country that’s set up for driving. If you want to get anywhere, that means getting behind the wheel, tired or not. A recall problem offers a bold, winnable fix. Tired driving is much more diffuse.