Driver Fatigue Accidents: What They Involve and Their Legal Implications

November 16, 2021 | By Nicolette R. Nicoletti
Driver Fatigue Accidents: What They Involve and Their Legal Implications

Driving is a mentally and physically demanding task. Safe drivers focus their attention on the road. However, if a driver is drowsy or fatigued, it becomes much harder to operate a vehicle in traffic effectively. Their reaction times decrease, as do their mental processing abilities.

Half of the adults in the United States admit to drowsy driving; worse yet, 20 percent have fallen asleep while operating a motor vehicle in the past year. One in 25 drivers says that they fell asleep while driving at least once in the last month. If they do fall asleep, the results can be disastrous.

The Dangers of Drowsy Driving

Being in a drowsy state impacts a driver’s decision-making, judgment, attention, coordination, reaction times, and vigilance.

Drowsy drivers often:

  • Weave back and forth between lanes
  • Have trouble maintaining the right speed
  • Struggle to keep a safe distance from other vehicles
  • Might not react in time to avoid hitting something

A large number of drowsy driving crashes happen because a single driver drove off the road or into another lane of traffic at high speeds.

What Are the Risk Factors for Drowsy Driving?

The risk factors for drowsy driving are many. Unfortunately, many of these risk factors occur frequently with commercial truck drivers.

Risk factors include:

  • Driving between midnight and 6 a.m. when the body tends to be sleepier
  • Driving on a monotonous road
  • Driving alone
  • Driving for long hours
  • Having less than six hours of sleep
  • Sleep apnea
  • Other sleep disorders
  • Stress
  • Chronic lack of enough sleep
  • Poor quality sleep
  • Young drivers
  • Drivers who have alcohol or other medications in their system
  • Shift workers
  • Professional drivers
Drowsy Driving Compared to Drunk Driving

Drowsy driving is a cause or factor in many motor vehicle accidents. However, people don’t give it as much notoriety or attention as drunk driving. Traffic and public health experts are urging for increased awareness and prevention of drowsy driving.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in one year, drowsy driving caused a minimum of 91,000 crashes, resulting in 50,000 injuries and 795 fatalities. These numbers remain largely unchanged from one year to the next. On the other hand, alcohol was a factor in 9,949 fatal crashes in a year, nearly 30 percent of all deadly crashes.

While detecting if a driver has been drinking is relatively simple through reliable measurements, a drowsy driver is difficult to detect, particularly after an accident. Unfortunately, there’s no real or concrete method to measure how sleep-deprived a driver is or if they were driving while fatigued. Most drivers won’t readily admit that they were drowsy at the wheel, causing accident investigators to contribute their accidents to other factors.

However, through careful research and analysis, researchers report that about 6,000 annual accident fatalities are attributable to drowsy driving. If this is true, about 21 percent of all motor vehicle crashes involve drowsy driving each year. These accidents come at a high price. Accounting for medical expenses, property damage, and other related accident costs, drowsy driving costs society between $12.5 billion and $109 billion annually.

Drunk and drowsy driving aren’t the same, but they have several similarities and are equally risky. Researchers found through controlled studies that drunk and drowsy driving both cause a similar number of accidents.

Drivers who are under the influence of alcohol usually experience vision and depth perception difficulties. They also have problems judging speed. Their risky driving behaviors stem from their alcohol-induced impulsiveness, inhibition, and over-confidence.

Drowsy drivers often can’t stay vigilant of the road, nor can they react as they should to various circumstances while driving. Situations that demand fast reflexes may lead to crashes if the driver is fatigued.

After about 18 hours of wakefulness, vigilance, reaction time, multi-tasking, and hand-eye coordination are equal to having a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.05 percent. Once drivers have been awake for 20 hours, their impairment is comparable to a 0.08 BAC, the current legal limit in most states. After not sleeping in 24 hours, a drowsy driver’s impairment is equal to a BAC of 0.1 percent.

Even a mild and short-term lack of sleep can lead to unsafe driving ability impairments. In fact, through their research, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety determined that sleeping only between six and seven hours a night doubled the risk of being involved in a crash. Sleeping less than five hours doubled the risk again.

Drowsiness and Duty of Care

Drivers and their employers owe others on the road a duty of care. This means that they must act in the same way as a reasonably sensible individual in their position would. For example, a reasonably sensible driver wouldn’t run a red light. If a driver runs a red light and causes an accident, they become liable because they breached the duty of care.

Likewise, drivers and their employers fail to adhere to their duty of care in many ways when it comes to drowsy driving.

Drivers fail to:

  • Get adequate sleep (typically seven to nine hours every night)
  • Stop driving if they feel fatigued.
  • See a doctor for health problems that might be impacting their sleep if they feel chronically drowsy.
  • Monitor themselves and co-workers for signs of fatigue such as yawning, drooping head, heavy eyelids, frequent blinking, difficulty focusing, daydreaming, trouble recalling the last few minutes of driving, drifting between lanes, hitting rumble strips, missing exits or signs, and restlessness, irritability, or aggressiveness
  • Report fatigue or drowsiness in others to a supervisor
  • Be honest about incidents that could be fatigue-related
  • Take mandatory breaks
  • Follow federal rules regarding driving hours and rest periods.
  • Refrain from alcohol or drug consumption
  • Monitor the effects of any prescription medication they take

Employers fail to:

  • Have adequate staffing
  • Create and enforce policies setting overtime limits and the maximum allowable successive work shifts
  • Educate and train employees on managing fatigue and proper sleep
  • Have a sleep disorder screening and management program in place
  • Give employees rest breaks or allow naps in some circumstances.
  • Provide employees with fatigue-signs checklists and encourage self-reporting
  • Encourage co-workers to engage in peer monitoring of fatigue signs.
  • Suggest that employees use an instrumented wristband to help track their fatigue
  • Evaluate information provided by in-vehicle monitoring systems to identify potential fatigue signs and episodes, including drifting into the other lane or onto the shoulder
  • Teach and require incident investigators to review possible fatigue in any incidents and near-miss incidents
What Happens if a Drowsy Driver Hits You?

The first thing you should do after any accident is to seek medical attention. The most critical priority should be getting checked over by a doctor, even if you don’t feel hurt or injured. You can have hidden injuries that won’t reveal themselves immediately. One of these hidden injuries is internal bleeding which can be severe and even fatal. Whether you go straight to the emergency room or see your own doctor, don’t forgo medical care after an accident.

Often, it’s difficult to tell right away if another driver’s fatigue caused your accident. Sometimes they will admit to being drowsy or display symptoms of fatigue immediately after the accident. The responding law enforcement officers will investigate the accident and draft a written report.

At this point, it’s wise to meet with an attorney who can review your case. If they believe you have a strong personal injury claim, they can help you seek the compensation you deserve for your injuries. They will perform a thorough investigation of the accident, looking for signs that the driver may have been drowsy or otherwise compromised. Part of their investigation will involve studying the written report submitted by law enforcement.

Suppose a commercial driver hit you. In that case, your attorney will obtain and review their records to see if they were compliant with federal laws regarding rest and sleep while on the road.

Medical Conditions that Cause Drowsy Driving

Sometimes a driver becomes drowsy or falls asleep due to a known or undiagnosed sleep disorder or other health problem. However, if your attorney can prove that the driver or their employer (if applicable) negligently failed to recognize the signs of chronic fatigue and seek medical evaluation, they may still be held liable for your accident.

Medical conditions that can lead to drowsy driving include:

  • Insomnia
  • Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
  • Narcolepsy

Drivers diagnosed with the following also report frequent sleepiness:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Dementia
  • Epilepsy
  • Certain heart conditions
  • Complex internal health problems
Medications That Can Induce Drowsiness

Taking certain medications can also make a driver feel drowsy. Even a well-rested driver cannot drive safely on some of these medications.

Your attorney will investigate to see if the driver who caused your accident was taking:

  • Cold or cough tablets/liquids
  • Some antihistamines (used for allergies)
  • Sleeping pills
  • Narcotic pain pills
  • Tranquilizers
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Some antidepressants
  • Some high blood-pressure pills
Drowsy Truck Drivers

Commercial truck drivers operate the largest and heaviest vehicles on the road, including tractor-trailers, garbage trucks, tow trucks, and buses. Severe injuries and deaths are common in truck accidents.

The commercial trucking industry is well-known for making its drivers work for treacherously long hours behind the wheel. Trucking companies frequently expect their drivers to work shifts 20-hours or longer, six days a week. However, this dangerous practice is undoubtedly against current federal laws.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) places these restrictions and requirements on commercial truck drivers so they stay awake and alert when driving:

  • No more than 60 hours of work per seven days, or 70 hours every eight days.
  • After driving for a total of 11 hours, or a total of 14 hours on-duty, drivers should have a mandatory ten-hour break
  • At least one 30-minute break for every eight hours of being on the clock or driving

Employers who don’t enforce these regulations are breaking federal law and putting all people on the road in danger, and there should be reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Employers can’t retaliate against employees who make a report. If an employer threatens or follows through with retaliation, a driver should report it to the FMCSA.

Are There Laws Against Drowsy Driving?

Only two states, Arkansas and New Jersey, explicitly classify drowsy driving as a punishable offense. While it may not be a criminal offense in other states, accident victims can still pursue a personal injury lawsuit against the driver.

To help reduce drowsy driving accidents, California, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, and Maine have enacted driver’s license restrictions for drivers with untreated sleep disorders.

Even though they don’t have specific laws against drowsy driving, Alabama, California, Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas all have weeks or days dedicated to increasing public awareness of fatigued driving and recognizing the symptoms of drowsy driving.

Did Drowsy Driver Hit You?

If a drowsy driver or someone you suspect was drowsy caused your accident, you might deserve compensation. The best way to determine if you are is to speak to a well-versed attorney in your area. Fatigued driving cases can be challenging to prove since there’s no concrete proof that a driver was drowsy or sleep-deprived.

You can increase your chances of receiving compensation if you work with an attorney who has experience representing clients in these types of accidents. A seasoned car accident lawyer can collect evidence to possibly establish that the driver who hit you was drowsy.

Injury Accident Law Offices in Port Richey
Accident Attorney, Anthony Nicoletti

Evidence might include:

  • No skid marks at the accident scene can indicate that a drowsy driver didn’t attempt to stop the vehicle.
  • Employment or school attendance records, which might reveal that the motorist was suffering from a chronic lack of sleep
  • Prescription records for medications that commonly cause drowsiness
  • Cell phone records, social media posts, and credit card records can prove that the drowsy driver who hit you had been awake for a lengthy time.
  • Testimony of other passengers in their car or eyewitnesses

Don’t hesitate to get the medical and legal help you need after a drowsy driver hits you.

Nicolette R. Nicoletti Author Image

Nicolette R. Nicoletti

Managing Partner

Nicolette R. Nicoletti is the founder and managing partner of the Nicoletti Accident Injury Lawyers. She was born and raised in New Port Richey, Florida.  Nicolette attended Genesis Preparatory School and graduated salutatorian of her class.  She then went onto Saint Leo University for her undergraduate education. She graduated magna cum laude from the Honors Program with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science.  While at Saint Leo University, Nicolette was President of Pi Sigma Alpha (Political Science Honor Society), Secretary of Alpha Phi Sigma (Criminal Justice Honor Society), and an active member of Delta Epsilon Sigma (National Scholastic Honor Society).

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