Is Falling Asleep While Driving Gross Negligence?

Find Out If You're Eligible for Compensation

drowsy driver slumps over the steering wheel of his car

Yes, falling asleep while driving can be considered gross negligence in a car accident if the drowsy driver was acting with negligence and with disregard for other driver’s safety.

At some point in our lives, most of us have driven while feeling very tired. Few of us realize, however, just how risky that act can be.

Research has shown that sleepiness impairs driving ability just as much as intoxication. A tired driver, in other words, poses just as much of a danger to others on the road as a drunk driver.

Extreme drowsiness sometimes causes drivers to fall asleep at the wheel. Catastrophic accidents often follow, leaving injured victims and grieving families in their wake. This issue has been identified as a recurring problem in big truck accidents with fatigued and sleep-deprived semi-truck drivers.

The law holds drivers legally liable for injuries and losses they cause by engaging in extremely dangerous conduct but is falling asleep while driving gross negligence?

Let’s discuss whether nodding off while driving and causing a drowsy driving accident constitutes the sort of conduct that leads to drivers owing damages to auto accident victims.

The Dangers of Falling Asleep While Driving and The Drowsy Driving Epidemic in America

a smashed and damaged automobile being pulled by a winch cable onto a flatbed truck after being hit by a drowsy driver

The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which studies transportation safety in the United States, reports that more than 90,000 traffic accidents occur each year as a result of drivers falling asleep while driving. These crashes result in tens of thousands of injuries and hundreds of deaths – and those numbers probably under-represent the problem.

Americans suffer from an epidemic of lack of sleep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly one-third of adults regularly get less than the recommended 7+ hours of sleep per night. Without adequate sleep, all of the cognitive and motor functions necessary for safe driving suffer.

Sleepy drivers also put themselves at risk of so-called “microsleep,” or nodding off for just a few seconds without even realizing it is happening, which can easily have catastrophic consequences.

A car traveling 60 mph covers nearly 100 feet in a second, more than enough distance for a microsleeping driver to lose control or fail to avoid a road hazard.

In other words, if one-driver-in-three takes the wheel while chronically sleep-deprived, chances are that far more accidents result from driver fatigue than go reported.

Legal Liability for Falling Asleep at the Wheel

No one would think twice about whether a drunk driver should face criminal and civil legal liability for causing a crash. However, the notion of holding someone legally and financially accountable for being tired might strike some people as unusual, at least at first.

However, the law makes this a pretty straightforward issue. All of us have basic duties to not to engage in unreasonably dangerous conduct that puts other people in harm’s way.

Driving while excessively fatigued is obviously dangerous. So, if drowsiness behind the wheel leads to an accident and injuries, the drowsy motorist should face legal liability. Here’s why.

Drowsy Driving Constitutes Negligence, At Least, but What is Negligence?

Negligence is a legal concept that stands for that basic proposition that we all owe each other a duty of care not to act in ways that put others at risk of harm. Accident lawyers prove that someone acted negligently by driving while drowsy by collecting and presenting evidence that:

  1. The drowsy driver had a legal duty of care towards the injured accident victim(s) to operate his or her vehicle with caution and care.
  2. The drowsy driver breached that duty by operating his or her vehicle without getting proper rest.
  3. The driver’s drowsiness directly or indirectly caused a crash.
  4. The crash inflicted injuries and losses on the crash victim.

Viewed through the lens of these four elements of proof, the reason drowsiness constitutes negligence becomes obvious.

As adults, we know when fatigue has slowed us down enough to impair our judgment and actions.

Driving in that condition violates our duty of care to others, because it is reasonable to expect it could diminish our ability to drive enough to contribute to the cause of a crash. For that reason, the law says that motorists should bear the legal and financial consequences if their fatigue causes a crash that injures someone else.

What is Gross Negligence? How it May Be Constituted by Falling Asleep at the Wheel?

Some negligent acts are worse than others, and the law tries to account for that by classifying extremely dangerous conduct as not merely negligence, but gross negligence.

For example, driving home after working 18 hours straight might constitute negligence. Continuing to drive after realizing you have nodded off behind the wheel several times could constitute wrongdoing.

More broadly, this refers to actions or omissions that are so obviously dangerous or reckless that they show a conscious disregard for the safety and well-being of others.

Intentionally dangerous acts can also constitute this. For example, if someone got on a busy highway after not sleeping for 24 hours, just to see how bad of a driver they really are when operating on so little sleep.

However, unintentionally dangerous actions may also be considered in the wrong if a reasonable person would realize they pose an extremely high danger to others.

Speaking technically, Kentucky law defines this as actions committed towards another person with “oppression, fraud, or malice.”

The first two of those legal terms refer to intentional actions. The third, however, tends to refer to a flagrant disregard for another person’s safety, knowing that actions could result in injury or death to that person.

Taking or staying behind the wheel while knowing you cannot keep your eyes open could constitute that kind of flagrant disregard for the safety and wellbeing of others on the road. In other words, the law could very well treat it as being in the wrong.

Legal Consequences of Gross Negligence

In practical terms, the distinction between negligence and gross negligence usually boils down to the types and amounts of money damages the at-fault driver must pay to injured accident victims.

Conduct constituting this act – such as falling asleep while driving – will tend to make it easier for a personal injury lawyer to prove legal liability. It also frequently provides grounds for a car accident injury attorney to seek, and for a court to award, punitive damages.

Punitive damages aim to punish the sleeping driver’s conduct, and to deter the driver (and, by example, others) from ever taking the wheel again in an extremely fatigued condition. The law reserves punitive damages for cases involving extreme conduct.

If the court decides an injured accident victim should receive punitive damages after a driver falls asleep at the wheel and causes an accident, it will consider these factors to determine the appropriate damages amount:

  • How likely it was that serious harm would result from the driver falling asleep;
  • To what extent the driver had an awareness of the potential harm;
  • Whether the driver somehow profited from falling asleep (this is rare; profitability is often a consideration in other types of personal injury lawsuits, but does not generally apply to traffic accidents);
  • For how long the driver operated the vehicle while feeling extreme drowsiness; and
  • The extent to which the driver took actions to remedy the behavior after realizing the danger involved.

Drivers who cause injuries or fatalities may also face criminal charges stemming from falling asleep while operating an automobile.

Depending on the situation, a person who falls asleep while driving could be guilty of reckless driving and/or vehicular manslaughter.

In fact, in some states, operating a motor vehicle while drowsy can constitute a felony, depending on the circumstances of an accident and whether a fatality occurred.

Warning Signs of Falling Asleep at the Wheel and Extreme Fatigue While Driving

A drowsy driver yawns as he is about to fall asleep behind the wheel

One of the most troubling aspects of this act is that drivers might not realize the degree of danger involved. We are so used to operating on less-than-optimal sleep that we take for granted we might take the wheel while at least a little impaired by our fatigue.

We can all do our part, however, to keep ourselves safe from tired drivers by monitoring the drivers of cars we ride in and other vehicles on the road for warning signs of dangerous driver fatigue.

If you see a driver or vehicle (as the case may be) exhibiting any of these warning signs, take steps to keep yourself safe by convincing the driver to pull over, giving the driver plenty of distance, and/or calling 911:

  • Frequent yawning;
  • Frequent blinking;
  • Reduced Reaction Time;
  • Drooping eyes;
  • Inability to focus on the road;
  • Itchy or watery eyes;
  • Seconds of nodding off;
  • Difficulty remembering the past few miles;
  • Drifting out of a lane;
  • Missing a turn or exit;
  • Hitting a rumble strip on the side or in the center of the road; and
  • Making frequent, sudden course corrections (the result of jerking the wheel when waking up from a microsleep).

Of course, these warning signs can also apply to our own driving. If you are behind the wheel and notice any of the above, you need to pull over as soon as possible to avoid loss of consciousness at the wheel and causing a serious traffic crash.

Investigating a Motor Vehicle Accident Caused by a Fatigued Driver: How an Experienced Attorney Can Help

A fatigued driver poses a far higher danger to the public than most people realize, but that is no excuse. A driver who cannot stay awake behind the wheel obviously puts others in danger of a catastrophic or fatal accident, and faces legal liability to crash victims for gross negligence.

Victims of a driver who causes a crash after falling asleep deserve smart, experienced legal representation to ensure a positive attorney-client relationship. Making sure they receive the compensation they deserve for their injuries and losses.

The nationally-recognized personal injury attorneys at Bryant Law Center have extensive experience helping clients hold grossly negligent drivers legally and financially accountable.

If you or a loved one sustained serious injuries in an accident caused by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel, contact our law firm today online using the contact form on this page or at (270) 908-0995 for free consultation and legal advice to learn about your legal rights to receive compensation for any pain and suffering as well as medical expenses.

About the Author
Mark Bryant

Mark Bryant

Kevin Shannon

Kevin Shannon

Emily Roark Paducah Personal Injury Lawyer

Emily Roark

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