GRIDLOCK GUY: Time change puts drowsy driving in crosshairs

We probably never would hear someone shuffle in to work and laugh about how drunk they were trying to drive there. I hope not.

The recent “spring forward” of most American clocks (Arizona and Hawaii do not “fall back”) brought the cliche cache of news stories about how the annual March time change makes people drowsy. Soundbites, sniplets, headlines, and social media posts make jest of how tired people are on the Monday following the hour of lost sleep, as they trudge in the dark to work or school.

But one nasty reality of this shift in hours is how detrimental this drowsiness is to safe driving.

People make light of America’s collective drowsiness for the first few days after the change to daylight saving time, but that jest should stop regarding driving in that state.

There aren’t news stories with chuckling anchors about drunk driving are there?

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety uncoincidentally released a study on the prevalence and effects of tired driving. To set the tone, AAA calls drowsy driving a “quiet killer” in the very title of the research’s press release.

From 2017 to 2021, crashes involving drowsy drivers in the U.S. claimed nearly 30,000 lives. Over 6,700 died in crashes with tired drivers in 2021 alone.

The study shows that even one hour less sleep than the ideal seven hours can cause drivers to have impaired judgment and microsleeps. Both of those maladies cause slow reaction time and poor decision-making, increasing crash risks.

One hour of sleep - as in the same hour lost in the time change. Isn’t being tired just hilarious?

AAA’s data unsurprisingly finds that drivers’ perception of their alertness level is usually skewed. Rarely do people actually realize how tired they are.

The foundation recommends, of course, that drivers get a proper night’s sleep at any time, take breaks roughly every two hours of driving, avoid eating heavy meals before a trip, and avoid driving at times they are not normally fully awake.

AAA also says that even a short power nap of 20 or 30 minutes can drastically increase a driver’s alertness and readiness to command a vehicle.

An idea: maybe people that have to drive in the first mornings after a spring time change should just sleep 30 extra minutes on those days. Then they can offset some of that lost time and gain back some alertness for their commute.

Data in this study indicates that four hours of lost sleep is equivalent in its detriment to a driver’s judgment as an illegal amount of alcohol. The time change is not worth four hours of lost sleep, but it does add an hour. So someone burning the midnight oil in mid-March is even more likely than normal to be tired beyond fit for motoring a vehicle.

This same effect holds true in the standard time, fall time change. Early darkness conjures yawns. Decreased visibility in the height of autumn PM rush hours creates more delays, due to both increased crashes and the higher contrast of the lights from cars causing overreactions from the surrounding automobiles.

Post-time change morning drives in daylight saving time see some of the same phenomena at the opposite times of day.

The risk of drowsy driving is yet another reason that states and the nation should scrap time changes. People are largely against them and the dangers are well documented.

Regardless of whether or not time changes remain in the long future for the United States, people need to stop taking drowsy driving lightly. There are very few people that quip about how drunk they are when they drive. In fact, a DUI is an eyebrow-raising black eye that can cost people thousands in legal fees, jail time, and careers. That is a draconian standard for fatigued driving, but that form of dull alertness deserves more attention and pause.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com

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