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Matt Gurwell
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Drowsiness and the Older Driver

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Keeping Us Safe











Drowsy driving can diminish a driver’s alertness, attention, reaction time, judgment and decision-making, which is sure to lead to a greater chance of an automobile crash.  At its extreme, drowsy driving can even lead to the often fatal error of falling asleep at the wheel.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with:

  • a broad description of just what drowsiness is and what some of the causes can be
  • provide you with a brief explanation of what drowsy driving is
  • show how drowsiness can affect a driver of any age
  • show how drowsiness can be especially detrimental to an older driver

The above points summarize the purpose of this article.  The real objective of this article, however, is to provide valuable information that will increase overall awareness of the detrimental effect drowsy driving can have on drivers of any age, but particularly on our aging population.  Hopefully, this article can keep at least one older driver from falling prey to the highway death trap known as drowsy driving.

What exactly is drowsy driving?

The Texas Transportation Institute succinctly defines drowsy driving as “the operation of a motor vehicle while being impaired by a lack of sleep”.

Drowsy driving is a form of impaired driving that negatively affects a person’s ability to drive safely. Most people associate impaired driving with alcohol or drugs, but in this situation, drowsiness is the primary cause.  Drowsy driving can be as dangerous as distracted driving or even drunk or drugged driving.  Studies show that driving after being awake for more than 20 hours results in an impairment equal to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent, the legal limit in all states.

So what are some sleep disorders that may eventually morph themselves into a drowsy driver?  Physiological factors such as sleep apnea and other sleep-related breathing disorders, insomnia, narcolepsy, parasomnias, nightmares, restless leg and other movement disorders, drug interactions, and Circadian Rhythm disorder, just to name a few!

And then we can throw fuel on those fires by adding ancillary complications like shift work or having worked a few extra hours, extended driving in the sun or in the rain, driving at times of the day when you would normally be sleeping, driving after having been awake for a long time.

How can drowsiness affect driving abilities?

Drowsiness can impair drivers of any age by causing slower reaction times, compromised vision and coordination, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information.

Speaking in more general terms, sleep deprivation has been linked to higher levels of stress, higher blood pressure levels and lower brain function. It’s safe to say that your driving performance will likely suffer if you aren’t getting the right sleep. Driving while drowsy can:

  • erode your ability to pay attention to your driving environment
  • challenge your defensive driving skills and overall situational awareness
  • slow your reaction time, especially if you have to brake or steer suddenly
  • compromise your ability to make good decisions

According to a study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, people who sleep only 6 to 7 hours a night are twice as likely to be involved in a sleep-related crash as those sleeping 8 hours or more.  People sleeping less than 5 hours per night increase their risk four to five times.  NHTSA’s National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Study (NMVCCS), reports that drowsy drivers are twice as likely to make driving performance errors as compared to drivers who are not fatigued.

How can drowsiness affect an older driver?

As we continue our way through the natural aging process, we may eventually lose some of our safe driving skills.  Don’t shoot the messenger, but it is well documented that there is a positive correlation between increasing age and a diminishment in safe driving skills.  In fact, did you know that AAA estimates that on average, we outlive our safe driving abilities by 7-10 years?

As we get older, some of us may begin to experience cognitive and/or physical declines.  Our memory, reaction time and vision may begin to slip.  Our ability to quickly look left or right to check our blind spot may be challenged.  We may start to experience numbness or pain in our hands and feet, we may not hear (or see!) that we’ve left our turn signal on, and the list goes on.

Now…factor in drowsiness to the already potentially dangerous situation of an older driver’s diminishing driving skills.  Maybe we’re not sleeping well, have developed sleep apnea, or insomnia.  Maybe a new medication is keeping us awake at night, or making us tired.

Having age-related diminished driving skills is one thing.  Being tired while driving is another, and alone, each pose its own compartment of dangers.  But the synergistic effect of both of them together is certain to increase the likelihood of a highway tragedy.

And a completely avoidable tragedy at that.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that drowsy driving was responsible for 72,000 crashes, 44,000 injuries and 800 deaths in 2013, but those numbers are not exact and could actually be much higher.  The issue is important enough that NHTSA has made drowsy driving one of four safety priorities, which already include drunk, drugged and distracted driving.

Just last month, the Iowa Department of Public Safety and the University of Iowa held a Drowsy Driver Summit, billed as the “first-in-the-nation event” to figure out a statewide strategy, which includes much more than just new legislation and heavier traffic enforcement, to effectively battle this dangerous and deadly issue.

Please note that National Drowsy Driving Prevention Week, is scheduled for November 6 – 13, 2016.  More information on drowsy driving (including tips on how to prevent drowsy driving) can be found on the National Sleep Foundation’s website at https://sleepfoundation.org/.

Final Words

Apart from drivers ensuring that they simply get enough sleep, experts believe that promoting more widespread understanding of the problem is an important step in reducing crash frequency.

As mentioned earlier, the hopes are that this article will help to increase overall awareness on the causes and effects of drowsy driving, particularly as they relate to older drivers.  But more than that, it is hoped that this document can help keep at least one older driver in America from falling prey to the highway death trap known as drowsy driving.

About the author:  

Matt Gurwell is founder of Keeping Us Safe, LLC,  a national organization that provides practical, real-life solutions to older drivers and their families.