Falling asleep whilst driving: are drivers aware of prior sleepiness?

L A Reyner, J A Horne
International Journal of Legal Medicine 1998, 111 (3): 120-3
Falling asleep at the wheel is a common cause of road accidents, but little is known about the extent to which drivers are aware of their sleepiness prior to such accidents. It is an area with medico-legal implications. To simulate this situation 28 healthy young adult experienced drivers, sleep restricted the night before drove for 2 h in the afternoon in an interactive real-car simulator incorporating a dull and monotonous roadway. Lane drifting, typifying sleepy driving, was subdivided into minor and major incidents, where the latter was indicative of actually falling asleep. A distinction was made between the subjective perceptions of sleepiness and the likelihood of falling asleep which drivers reported separately. Increasing sleepiness was closely associated with an increase in the number of incidents. Major incidents were preceded by self-awareness of sleepiness well beforehand and typically, subjects reached the stage of fighting sleep when these incidents happened. Whilst the perceived likelihood of falling asleep was highly correlated with increasing sleepiness, some subjects failed to appreciate that extreme sleepiness is accompanied by a high likelihood of falling asleep. It was not possible for our subjects to fall asleep at the wheel and have an "accident" without experiencing a sustained period of increasing sleepiness, of which they were quite aware. There is a need to educate at least some drivers that extreme sleepiness is very likely to lead to falling asleep and a high accident risk.

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