Study examines toll of drowsy driving

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2010; 8:50 PM

The most dramatic and deadly asleep-behind-the-wheel accident in recent memory began as nothing more than a fender-bender before mushrooming into a chain-reaction collision on an Oklahoma highway that left 10 people dead and six injured.

The uncommon tragedy started with something that a study released Monday found is all too common: people nodding off behind the wheel.

Although drowsy driving is eclipsed as a highway hazard by speeding, drunken driving and distracted driving, 41 percent of drivers say they have done it, according to the report from the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Falling asleep while driving results in 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and more than 100,000 accidents each year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates.

The deadly chain of events in Oklahoma last year unfolded somewhat innocuously: A Ford Focus sideswiped a truck parked on the shoulder, then bounced off the median and came to rest blocking the left-hand lane of an Oklahoma highway.

That first crash on Interstate 44 backed up traffic for a quarter mile. Then along behind it - at 69 mph - came a Volvo tractor-trailer whose 76-year-old driver, investigators concluded, was falling asleep.

The cab towing an empty refrigerated supermarket trailer plowed into the line of waiting vehicles.

It slammed a 2003 Land Rover SUV forward into a 2003 Hyundai Sonata. The Land Rover screeched to the right, where it overturned off the shoulder. After knocking the Land Rover aside, the truck rode over the top of the Hyundai and a 2004 Kia Spectra.

Then, dragging those two cars along beneath it, the tractor-trailer hit a 2000 Ford minivan, slamming it forward into a livestock trailer carrying 10 sheep. The pickup towing the trailer, a 2004 Ford 350, was propelled into a 2008 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.

Ten dead and six injured, including two toddlers in car seats and the truck driver.

The National Transportation Safety Board report on the June 2009 crash, issued in September, cited driver fatigue as the cause.

The NTSB report also said that the initial fender-bender was caused by the 18-year old driver of the Ford Focus, who also fell asleep behind the wheel.

Though precision is elusive in calculations such as this, it's almost certain that more people than the official 1,550 die in the United States because of driver fatigue. Such data rely on admissions from the driver, who may not be aware of what caused the crash or who may not be forthcoming.

The driver of the tractor-trailer in Oklahoma declined to be interview by the NSTB, so investigators examined his driving history the week of the crash before concluding that fatigue was the cause.

Not all drowsiness comes late at night. More than one in four drivers told AAA they had fallen asleep during the afternoon within the past year. And more than two-thirds of drivers who said they dozed off said they were unaware when they got into the vehicle that they might have a hard time staying awake.

Concern over fatigue while operating a fast-moving vehicle isn't confined to the highways.

The Federal Aviation Administration this year proposed stricter regulations on airline pilots, including a rule that would enable pilots to get more sleep. Twenty-five people have died in the past four years in three major bus accidents attributed to tired drivers.

Fatigue also was judged to have been a factor in a 1997 collision between two freight trains in Kansas. An engineer who had been awake for 18 hours died, and NTSB investigators concluded that he "probably fell asleep" just before the trains collided.

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