News Brief
October 1, 2013

Short Sleepers Most Likely to Be Drowsy Drivers, Penn Medicine Study Finds

Those who sleep less than six hours per night who report feeling fully rested still three times as likely to be drowsy drivers

PHILADELPHIA — Federal data suggests that 15 to 33 percent of fatal automobile crashes are caused by drowsy drivers, but very little research has addressed what factors play a role in operating a vehicle in this impaired state. New research from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania is revealing that short sleepers, those who sleep less than six hours per night on average, are the most likely to experience drowsy driving , even when they feel completely rested. The study is published in the October issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

“Falling asleep at the wheel is a major cause of road accidents. It might even be more of a problem than drunk driving, since it is responsible for more serious crashes per year,” said corresponding study author Michael Grandner, PhD, instructor in Psychiatry and member of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology.  “We already know that people who are sleep deprived in the laboratory have impaired driving performance, but we haven’t been able to better define what sleep profiles and patterns put drivers in the general population at the highest risk.” 

Previous research on drowsy driving has utilized results from laboratory experiments, but the new study, utilizing data from the CDC’s 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), evaluated individuals in the general population. BRFSS is an annual, state-based, random digit-dialed telephone interview survey of adults aged 18 years and older from all over the U.S., conducted by the CDC. It is the world’s largest telephone survey, designed to monitor health-related behaviors in the general population.

Using the BRFSS data, Grandner and colleagues found that people who self-reported sleeping 6 hours  or less  (short sleepers) on average were about twice as likely as 7-hour sleepers to report driving drowsy in the past 30 days, and those sleeping 5 hours or less (very short sleepers) were nearly 4 times as likely.

They also examined the data on the subset of short and very short sleepers who reported that they always receive sufficient sleep, finding that these people are still 3 times as likely to report drowsy driving in the past 30 days. This means that short sleepers, even if they feel fully rested, are more likely to drive drowsy.

Other study authors from Penn include senior author Indira Gurubhagavatula, MD, MPH, James Findley, PhD, CBSM, and Querino Maia.

This study was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (K23HL110216), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (R21ES022931), and the Institute for Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, via the Penn CTSA (UL1RR024134), and the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety/Centers for Disease Control (R01OH009149).

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Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 17 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $392 million awarded in the 2013 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2013, Penn Medicine provided $814 million to benefit our community.

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