If you’ve been injured in an accident because someone was driving drowsy, you know that falling asleep at the wheel is just as dangerous as driving drunk. Yet every year, people fall asleep while driving, leading to property damage, personal injury, and even death.

How many people drive drowsy?

It’s difficult to know just how many automobile crashes, injuries, and fatalities occur each year because someone was driving drowsy. Although crash investigators can look for clues that drowsiness contributed to a crash, there isn’t a test to confirm that someone has fallen asleep at the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uses police and hospital reports to determine the incidence of drowsy-driving crashes. NHTSA estimates that in 2017, 91,000 police-reported crashes involved drowsy drivers. These crashes include an estimated 50,000 people injured and nearly 800 deaths. Traffic safety, sleep science, and public health communities agree that these statistics significantly underestimate the impact of drowsy driving. [1] According to the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep in America poll, 60% of Americans have driven while feeling sleepy, and 37% admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel in the past year.

Many people think they can handle driving while sleepy

NHTSA research shows that drivers are often unaware of their deteriorating condition or, when aware, keep driving. However, many people cannot tell if or when they are about to fall asleep. This puts them and others on the road in great danger. Extreme fatigue can cause an uncontrolled and involuntary shutdown of the brain. This means that a person can fall asleep at any time, without them realizing it. Even drivers who pull over and walk around to wake up can quickly return to their tired state within minutes of resuming driving. What they really need is a nap.

Minnesota doesn’t have specific laws regarding drowsy driving.

Most people don’t consider driving drowsy to be among the “big four” driving behaviors that lead to injury and death on the road: driving impaired, speeding, distracted driving, and not wearing a seat belt. Yet, many researchers claim that drowsy driving belongs in that first category: impaired driving. The only difference is that the impairment comes from fatigue rather than alcohol or drugs. Your reaction time and your judgment are both impaired when you are drowsy. Drowsy driving is also distracted driving.

When falling asleep at the wheel causes an accident.

Drowsy drivers who cause an accident can be charged with reckless driving. Minnesota’s reckless driving statute (169.13 MN subd.1a) says that:

“A person who drives a motor vehicle or light rail transit vehicle while aware of and consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the driving may result in harm to another or another’s property is guilty of reckless driving. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that disregard of it constitutes a significant deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”

Various medical sleep disorders can cause drowsiness and fatigue.  

These include disorders such as:

  •       insomnia
  •       narcolepsy
  •       parasomnias (such as sleepwalking)
  •       restless legs syndrome
  •       sleep apnea
  •       and sleep loss


Signs that you are too tired to drive safely:

  •       difficulty remembering the last few miles driven
  •       drifting from your lane, tailgating, or hitting a shoulder rumble strip
  •       feeling restless or irritable
  •       missing exits or traffic signs
  •       “nodding off” (trouble keeping your head up)
  •       rubbing your eyes, frequent blinking, or heavy eyelids
  •       trouble focusing, wandering/disconnected thoughts
  •       yawning repeatedly

If a drowsy driver has injured you

While there are many reasons that a person may drive drowsy, it is dangerous. It’s as dangerous as any other impairment. Tired drivers can be held liable for any damages they cause. If you’ve been injured in an accident involving a driver who fell asleep at the wheel, you should consult with an attorney. White & Associates can help you get back on your feet after an accident. Contact us today to find out how.


[1] Andrew.currin.ctr@dot.gov. “Drowsy Driving.” NHTSA, The United States Department of Transportation, 22 July 2019, www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drowsy-driving.

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