This blog often champions causes that prevent drivers’ attentions from leaving the immediate concerns of the road. Drunk driving and distracted driving (typically in the form of texting or cell phone use) are frequent targets. But we don’t often enough consider the dangers of falling asleep at the wheel. That’s too bad, because unlike drunk driving and distracted driving, two problems for which immediate technological solutions seem distant, driver wakefulness appears to be a readily addressable danger.

This issue is receiving renewed attention as a part of Drowsy Driving Prevention Week (sponsored by the National Sleep Foundation). AAA recently released a study which indicates that like distracted driving, though drowsy driving is a widely acknowledged danger, a disturbing number of people self-reported driving drowsy.

Although 96 percent of drivers said drowsy driving is unacceptable, nearly a third admitted to doing so in the past month. Further, the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 Sleep in America poll found that nearly one in ten 16-45 year old drivers report driving drowsy once or twice a week.

Driving while fighting sleep invites a particularly frightening scenario in which a 1,500 hunk of steel is being completely unmanned. AAA estimates that nearly one in six traffic fatalities and one in eight accidents that result in injuries requiring hospitalization involve a drowsy driver.

David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation, provides this aptly terrifying image: “Many don’t realize that driving while drowsy is very dangerous. If you’re so tired that you can hardly keep your eyes open, you could fall asleep for just a few seconds and not realize it. If that happens at 65 miles an hour, you could drive the length of a football field in an unconscious state.”

AAA offers the following advice: Get plenty of sleep in advance of road trips, take regular (2 hour) breaks, make liberal use of caffeine if necessary, and bring someone who can keep you company (and awake).

All great, common sense pieces of advice, but sometimes common sense just isn’t enough to control human behavior. It’s a concept implicit in our terming of auto-collisions as “accidents.” If we acknowledge that humans are prone to error, we should do something systemically to mitigate those dangerous faults.

Fortunately, technological advances and their increasingly widespread application may hold a simple solution. Beginning around 2006, driver monitoring systems that track drifting between lanes and driver eye movement have been developed to rouse drivers when they exhibit signs of sleepiness.

Lexus, Mercedes, Volvo, GM, BMW, Hyundai, Renault Trucks and many others all employ some form of the safety systems. In addition to being a feature in many new cars and an aftermarket safety enhancement, researchers are working to ascertain the effectiveness of driver monitoring technology in truckers, a demographic disproportionately exposed to the risks of drowsy driving.

While some drivers may object to intrusive systems that provide unnecessary alerts, laser optic technology that senses proximity to and approaching speed of other vehicles certainly has the potential to greatly reduce accidents that come in a moment of distraction, or drowsiness. There are also concerns about the cost of the system, despite evidence illustrating the dangers of sleepy drivers. A 2009 government study (of trucking systems) addressed those issues, and found that even from a purely economic standpoint, the yearly cost of crashes would decrease in amounts more than sufficient to cover the cost of the technology.

Our understanding of the benefits of driver and vehicle monitoring systems increases and the cost of the technology is decreasing. Hopefully, we’ll soon be able to put drowsy driving concerns to bed.

Photo credit:  Garrett