Driver fatigue a common cause of auto accidents

For many commuters, it is not uncommon to yawn while heading to work on Monday mornings. While some may see this sort of sleepiness as normal, new data indicates that fatigued driving is a serious safety concern. According to a recent study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, driver fatigue is responsible for approximately 20 percent of all car accidents in the U.S. The study indicates that fatigue is a much more serious problem among drivers than once believed.

The Virginia Tech study is unique because researchers employed naturalistic methods to gain new insights into the habits of everyday drivers. Researchers attached instruments - including video cameras, radar, lane tracking devices and accelerometers - to the vehicles of 100 commuters in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Because the primary subjects of the study also shared vehicles with other people in their households, researchers were able to collect information about an additional 132 drivers.

In all, researchers were able to collect data on a variety of traffic incidents as they happened. Among other things, the instruments helped them observe 82 crashes, 761 near crashes and 8,295 instances of hard braking for slow or stopped traffic.

Fatigue a significant factor in traffic accidents

The naturalistic approach allowed researchers to observe driver behavior immediately prior to a crash. Data indicated that drivers showed signs of fatigue, such as head bobbing, yawning and eyelid closure, before 20 percent of crashes and 16 percent of near crashes. The data indicates that drivers who choose to get behind the wheel while fatigued are four times more likely to be involved in a crash than those who are properly rested.

Although it seems more likely to be a problem at night, the authors of the study were surprised to find that fatigue played a significant role in traffic incidents during the day. Drivers between the ages of 18 and 20 were particularly prone to fatigue-related accidents. Researchers suggested that adolescents were more likely to keep later hours and to get up early for school or work, which caused fatigue during daylight hours. Older drivers also showed signs of fatigue, but have more experience behind the wheel, which allowed them to adjust their driving accordingly.

Researchers at Virginia Tech are currently beginning new, larger naturalistic studies designed to examine the role of fatigue and the driving habits of younger drivers. They hope that their research will lead to the development of new strategies and technologies that can help drivers stay safe on our nation's highways.