Rules of the Road

This event coming up next weekend could impact traffic safety

Data shows a 17 percent increase in traffic fatalities right after we switch to Daylight Savings Time because people don’t get enough sleep.
Data shows a 17 percent increase in traffic fatalities right after we switch to Daylight Savings Time because people don’t get enough sleep. McClatchy

This week’s column isn’t prompted by a question; instead, it’s inspired by the calendar. If you’ve followed this column on a semi-regular basis you may have noticed that the topics sometimes correspond to events and seasons – rules about school buses at the start of the school year, impaired driving during the holidays – those sort of things.

But what event is coming up next weekend that could possibly have a tie to traffic safety? There isn’t holiday, a change of season or some other community-wide festival. But there is something to be aware of: Daylight Savings.

I’m not going to tell you that daylight savings is the next impending traffic disaster like a TV weather forecaster tells you that the next snow flurry will be “Snowmageddon 2018.” The impacts of Daylight Savings can’t compete (and this is a competition where winning is actually losing) with impaired driving, speeding or other distractions.

What we do get from Daylight Savings is an opportunity to see the impacts of a loss of sleep on our cognitive abilities.

The nerds who track traffic data will tell you that drivers crash more on the Monday following the switch to Daylight Savings. The data in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) show a 17 percent increase in traffic fatalities after setting our clocks one hour forward. Essentially, Daylight Savings is a giant research opportunity, where we can see the results of giving everyone in the country (except people in Arizona and Hawaii) one hour of jet lag.

Interestingly, Daylight Savings doesn’t affect all countries equally. In the U.S. and Canada, we see a significant increase in fatal crashes, but in Sweden it has no measurable effect. Likely that is because North Americans don’t get enough sleep to begin with. If you’re getting plenty of sleep, losing an hour isn’t a big deal. But if your sleep is already marginal, that one hour can have a big impact, and not just on your driving – workplace injuries and heart attacks increase in the days after we spring forward.

It makes sense that a lack of sleep would result in more car crashes and workplace injuries; the effects are similar to alcohol impairment. Drowsiness affects your reaction time, judgment, vision, awareness of surroundings and decision-making skills.

We also have a culture that doesn’t put enough value on sleep. You can probably think of people you know who believe that if you actually get the doctor-recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night, you’re probably lazy. According to the Mayo Clinic, those people are delusional due to a lack of sleep.

Even people who say they feel rested after less sleep don’t perform as well on mental tasks, which is almost entirely what driving is.

Washington doesn’t have a specific drowsy driving law. As far as I can tell, only two states in the U.S. do have a law related to drowsy driving.

That’s not for lack of trying though. Legislators in many states, including Washington, have proposed bills, but they have failed to pass. That doesn’t mean it’s OK, or even legal.

We have laws about reckless and negligent driving that can apply. Reckless driving is the “you knew it was dangerous and you did it anyway” law, while negligent driving is the “you did something dangerous without realizing it was dangerous, but a reasonable person would have known better” law.

When it comes to drowsy driving, if you know you’re too tired to drive and you end up causing a crash you could be guilty of reckless driving. If you don’t pay attention to how tired you are and get in a crash that could be negligent driving.

Let’s get back to Daylight Savings for a moment. You might think that if the “spring forward” part causes crashes because of a lack of sleep, the “fall backward” time of year might be beneficial to drivers. As it turns out, that’s not the case, but for a different reason.

There is an increase in crashes after the fall time change, although much smaller. Researchers concluded that some people looked at the extra time as a bonus hour to party on a Saturday night, resulting in more impaired drivers on the roads.

Could we save lives by abolishing Daylight Savings? Certainly. If you start a petition, I’d sign it. But we also could save lives by getting good sleep and pulling over when we start to feel drowsy. And that’s something we can do today.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.