Road Safety and Drowsy Driving

Each year, Drowsy Driving Prevention Week (DDPW, Nov. 3-10, 2013) focuses national attention on the significant threat posed by motorists who get behind the wheel while extremely tired. As we’ve discussed previously on this blog, our research shows that roughly one-in-six fatal crashes involves a drowsy driver. And, according to new survey data released this week from our latest Traffic Safety Culture Index, just about everybody thinks it’s unacceptable to drive when you’re having a tough time keeping your eyes open, but a substantial number of people do so anyway.

While we generally discuss drowsy driving within the context of our safety culture research, this week presents a valuable opportunity to highlight how this priority concern relates to another of our focus areas: road safety. Within the realm of traffic safety more broadly, “road safety” refers to the engineering and design features, maintenance, and operating conditions of the road network itself, including roadways and the roadside environment. Our research on pavement edge drop-offs, which examined how the design and construction of the road edge can influence certain types of crashes, is an example of this area of study.

But how can engineering considerations and road safety relate to drowsy driving? A common road safety principle is that a roadway should be forgivingof driver error. This means that the design of a road can help mitigate crash severity, or, even better, prevent crashes from happening in the first place. Installing rumble strips, for example, can prevent a drowsy driver from having a run-off-the-road crash, as the noise and vibration they cause are designed to jolt drivers back to attention. Similarly, median barriers – such as cable guardrail or jersey walls – can serve as a last line of defense for a drowsy driver by preventing or mitigating cross-over, head-on collisions.    

Our flagship effort to improve road safety across the country is the United States Road Assessment Program (usRAP), an operating program of the AAA Foundation. usRAP provides highway authorities a simple but robust way to make data-informed decisions for the safety of the motoring public. Using a video log of a roadway, for example, usRAP can analyze the engineering features of a given segment, assign a star safety rating (similar to the safety ratings commonly used for evaluating vehicles), and generate a safety investment plan to reduce the risks identified.

This week, in addition to commemorating DDPW, we were very pleased to celebrate the achievement of the Genesee County Road Commission in Michigan, which won a 2013 National Roadway Safety Award for utilizing the usRAP protocols to generate a county safety plan with an estimated benefit-cost ratio of 2.3. The Award was presented by the Federal Highway Administration and the Roadway Safety Foundation at a luncheon on Capitol Hill, with GCRC and usRAP staff in attendance.

While usRAP provides a valuable tool for the highway agencies nationwide that are responsible for building and maintaining safe roads, it is up to each of us as motorists to ensure that every time we get behind the wheel, we are prepared to use those safe roads safely. This requires being awake, alert, attentive, and sober – always. And at the AAA Foundation – which recently again received Charity Navigator’s coveted 4-Star rating – we’ll continue in our mission to provide the science and tools needed for drivers, highway authorities, and others to move Toward Zero Deaths on our roads.