Drowsy drivers don't need to be able to drive 80

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Wednesday, we wrote about the need for a system to warn drivers in whiteout conditions when they are approaching accidents blocking major highways.

Today comes word from AAA that another hazard is much more prevalent than we are being told.

The auto club studied dashboard video from 700 accidents and found that 9.5 percent of all crashes involved drowsy drivers, based on the amount of time the drivers’ eyes were closed in the minutes before a crash.

That portion climbs to 10.8 percent in the most severe crashes.

“Drowsy driving is a bigger safety issue than federal estimates show,” said David Yang, AAA Foundation’s executive director. “Drivers who don’t get enough sleep are putting everyone on the road at risk.”

The study is at odds with federal estimates, which suggest drowsiness is a factor in only 1 or 2 percent of crashes.

Travelers on I-80 and I-70 know the problem, hours of watching prairie and farmland rolling by, punctuated only by the occasional deer or fellow traveler.

We try drinking coffee, downing energy drinks, rolling down the window and singing, but those are poor substitutes for the real thing needed: rest.

“Don’t be fooled,” said William Van Tassel, AAA’s manager of driving training. “Your body’s need for sleep will eventually override your brain’s attempts to stay awake.”

About 35 percent of U.S. drivers sleep less than the recommended seven hours per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And, 96 percent of drivers surveyed told the AAA Foundation that drowsy driving is a serious threat, but 29 percent admitted doing it in the previous month.

While downing 5-Hour Energy and singing off-key along with Bruno Mars may be poor substitutes for sleep, so is another proposal by Sen. John Murante of Gretna, supported by Gov. Pete Ricketts, to increase speed limits by 5 mph on state highways, including 80 on Interstate 80.

Engineers say data shows drivers are already traveling that fast, and they’re joined by the Nebraska Restaurant Association in supporting Murante’s bill.

There is plenty of heavy opposition, however, including the trucking industry and highway safety advocates like AAA.

A Crete Carrier Corp. spokesman noted that the company’s trucks have governors preventing them from driving faster than 65 mph, for the safety of drivers and the public.

Higher speed increases the stopping distance required by trucks and creates additional dangerous conditions as slower-accelerating trucks attempt to enter highways and expressways.

AAA noted that increasing the speed from 75 to 80 mph would save a motorist driving between Omaha and Lincoln just 2 1/2 minutes while burning more fuel and increasing the chances of a severe crash.

One good part of the bill would create a new “super-two” highway classification, like one planned on Highway 83 through McCook, with passing lanes spaced intermittently to provide “predictable opportunities to pass slower-moving vehicles.”

But “Instead of saving minutes, we should focus on saving lives,” said Eric Koeppe, president and CEO of the National Safety Council of Nebraska.

One question to be answered is whether enforcement would become more strict, as it has in other states where the speed limit is raised.

If drivers are already going 80 mph under today’s 75 mph speed limit, there’s no need to change the limit. 

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