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NHTSA/NIH Combat Problem of Drowsy Driving Among Fast Growing Populations of Shift Workers and Teenagers

Report to Congress Outlines Drowsy Driving Risks/Offers Solutions

For Immediate Release:
June 3, 1999

Shift workers and teens, among the most vulnerable to a drowsiness-related highway crash, are a target of programs to combat the problem, two federal agencies have announced in a collaborative report to Congress.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) - collaborating on these programs with the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR) at the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute - conservatively estimates that 40,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities annually are attributable to drowsy drivers.

"As our culture moves to a 24-hour/7-day-a-week operation and the number of shift workers and teens continues to climb, the problem could worsen if changes are not made now," said NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez, MD. "NHTSA, with NCSDR, is leading the way to tackle this potential problem early on."

Between 1985 and 1997, the number of people working an evening, night, rotating or split shift rose 30%, while the overall workforce increased by 23%. According to the Department of Labor, over 15 million workers now work in shifts. Though factory workers account for the largest number of shift workers, the largest percentage gains are in service occupations reflecting increasing societal demands for services such as 24-hour computer support lines and mail order catalogues. In addition, according to the Census Bureau, the number of teens aged 15-19 is expected to increase from 18.5 million in 1996 to 26.5 million by 2050.

"People with insufficient sleep suffer impairments in performance, attention and reaction time, which leads to errors, including automobile crashes," said Claude Lenfant, MD, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NIH. "We must make the American public more aware of the importance of adequate sleep to good health and functioning, as well as the risks of insufficient sleep."

The report describes the results of collaborative efforts for the development of science-based education and information materials and programs. NHTSA's program targets shift workers and young males, particularly those who take long trips like military leave or school vacations, while the NCSDR is focusing on school-aged youth.

NHTSA's program will provide materials and guidance for employers, shift workers and shift workers' families.

"Shift workers cannot be expected to adapt to society's schedule," said Dr. Martinez. "Society must adapt to these workers' schedules."

The NCSDR convened a panel of sleep and traffic safety experts in 1997 to identify what the scientific literature showed about the groups most at risk of drowsy driving and how sleepiness affects their driving performance. The panel's report, "Drowsy Driving and Automobile Crashes" provides the scientific base for the educational activities.

The NCSDR has since developed and distributed drowsy driving educational materials to high school students and teachers nationally through a partnership with Scholastic Publications. Following a workshop with educators and experts in adolescent sleep on innovative strategies for reaching school-aged youth, NCSDR is now partnering with NIH's Office of Science Education on development of a supplemental curriculum on sleep for high schools.

The report to Congress, entitled "The NHTSA & NCSDR Program to Combat Drowsy Driving: A Report to Congress on Collaboration Between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (NCSDR)," is available on NHTSA's website at: