Arkansas is one of just two states in the country that has criminalized drowsy driving, but it’s almost never enforced.
Just three convictions have occurred under the state’s 2013 law, according to the most recent data from 2016.
To convict someone under the law, a death must occur, and there must be proof a driver had not slept for 24 hours before the accident. New Jersey, the other state that criminalized drowsy driving, requires proof that a driver missed 16 hours of sleep in order to convict them.
Mike Foster, a Highway Patrol Division commander with the Arkansas State Police, says it’s hard to catch someone in the act of driving tired.
“A sleepy person will drive and act just like someone who is impaired by drugs or alcohol, but if they have all of a sudden a shot of adrenaline because they are being stopped by police… then all of a sudden they don’t display those signs quite as readily,” he said.
Still, police reported about 72,000 crashes involving drowsy driving from 2009 to 2013 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, which from the data estimates that as much as 20 percent of traffic deaths are the result of sleepiness behind the wheel.
Statewide accident reports show about 900 people a year admit sleep deprivation is the reason they wrecked, but Foster thinks the true number is higher.
About two-thirds of American adults get less than the seven hours of recommended sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and some studies have shown that driving tired is as dangerous as driving drunk.
DROWSY DRIVING DAMPENS REFLEXES
Pam Fischer, a New Jersey-based traffic safety consultant with the Governors Highway Safety Association, says being tired slows us down.
“The issue is really one of being sharp, being alert, being able to react quickly. So when you’re tired, when you’re fatigued, we know that your response times are going to be slower,” she said.
Fischer says if drivers in an accident don’t self-disclose that they’re tired, proving it is a high bar.
“And that’s where, if states are going to take on the idea of legislating this issue, they really have to understand there are difficulties and they have to establish parameters that truly are enforceable,” she said.
And she says a jury will tend to be more lenient on a drowsy driver than a drunk driver. She says social norms need to change so that people recognize what’s at stake.
“And that’s where I think there needs to be a cultural shift. We have to change the public’s mindset about the danger of this practice.”
Fischer says it’s only in the last decade that safety experts have focused on drowsy driving, and there isn’t really a solution yet. To her, public education is the best response.
Foster, the state police commander, agrees that the public underestimates the risk.
“People burn the candle at both ends, and there’s consequences for that, and we hope they realize that and try to get some rest and not hurt anyone.”
Studies show that 17 or more hours without sleep can be equivalent to having a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 1 percent. If a person’s BAC is 0.08 percent or higher they are considered legally impaired.