A recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the USA has found that “Fatigued (sleepy) drivers kill more people [16.5%] than all of the drivers exceeding the speed limit [7%] or running a red light [2%].”

Inattention is by far the biggest cause of road fatalities, unfortunately the technology companies that manufacture speed and red light cameras cannot supply camera technology to detect inattentive drivers.
So there is no revenue in detecting fatigued drivers and inattentive drivers.

Roadside cameras are being used by some Australian police in an attempt to spot drivers on phones, but it’s still difficult to trap them. Particularly when drivers use mobiles legally (yes legally!) attached to the windscreen to read and dictate messages.

NHTSA’s data are compiled from the reports made by the officers at the scene of a crash, assigning blame on a standardised crash form to drivers who were extremely fatigued or even asleep just before a crash occurred. Drowsy driving is listed a cause in minor fender benders far less often.

However, NHTSA researchers stressed the limitations of relying on police reports for this assessment.

“Underreporting of the occurrence of drowsy driving is most likely due to lack of firm evidence of such involvement since investigation is done after the crash; drivers unaware of the role that drowsiness played in the crash; drivers reluctant to disclose that they fell asleep or were tired; and fatality of the involved driver.

“Previous reports cite data limitations that include over reporting due to greater social acceptance of fatigue over alcohol use, speeding, or inattention, or under reporting from crashes involving ‘drift out of lane’ that could actually be drowsy driving.”

Technology may provide a partial solution to the drowsy driving problem. Car makers are increasingly offering systems that automatically apply the brakes if the car detects the potential for a crash.

The USA’s insurance industry’s Highway Loss Data Institute reports fewer insurance claims from automobiles equipped with these technologies.

Lane departure warning systems that vibrate the wheel or sound an alarm if the driver starts drifting have not proved to be as effective.

“Unfortunately, the same analyses show some tradeoff in an increased number of side-swipe crashes with injuries,” the NHTSA report issued in March noted.

Though we know of no similar report on crashes in Australia, but it seems likely the figures are likely to be similar those in the USA.

However the huge distances travelled between towns in country areas of our vast country may mean even more drivers are dying due to falling asleep at the wheel. The so-called “unexplained single vehicle crashes”.

And may I point out – yet again – the low number of crashes caused by speeding? The NHTSA lists seven just per cent. Again, that figure is probably similar in Australia.

About Ewan Kennedy

Ewan Kennedy, a long-time car enthusiast, was Technical Research Librarian with the NRMA from 1970 until 1985. He worked part-time as a freelance motoring journalist from 1977 until 1985, when he took a full-time position as Technical Editor with Modern Motor magazine. Late in 1987 he left to set up a full-time business as a freelance motoring journalist. Ewan is an associate member of the Society of Automotive Engineers - International. An economy driving expert, he set the Guinness World Record for the greatest distance travelled in a standard road vehicle on a single fuel fill. He lists his hobbies as stage acting, travelling, boating and reading.
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