Night owls at high risk of crashing

Linda Melone
Driving at night can be hazardous to your auto insurance rates.
 A study published in the Journal of Sleep Research showed that being behind the wheel for three hours at night makes you drive as poorly as a person with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08, the legal limit for drunken driving in all 50 states and theDistrict of Columbia.
Researchers studied 14 men who drove for various lengths of time at different increments of time (3-5 a.m.,1-5 a.m.and9 p.m.-5 a.m.) on three nights. They drove at a steady rate of speed while cameras recorded their route to determine whether they strayed from the center line.
Driving for two hours at night dropped driving ability to the equivalent of a blood-alcohol level of 0.05, which qualifies as "buzzed." At the three-hour mark, the nighttime motorists were driving as if they were legally drunk.
The results of the study help explain the increased traffic death rates, which are three times greater at night than during the day, according to the National Safety Council.
Insurance impact
 While nighttime driving boosts your risk of crashing, an accident anytime of the day usually will raise your auto insurance rates, says Brian Allred, senior agent with JMW Insurance Solutions inBeaumont,Calif.If the accident's your fault, your rates can climb by 20 percent to 25 percent, he says.
The effect of a single accident on your auto insurance rates depends on your insurance company, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. "If the accident was very minor or you were not at fault," she says, "your rates may not increase or they might very minimally increase."
On the other hand, if someone was injured in an accident, you were driving drunk or you were speeding, your rates could double, Worters says. In some cases, your insurer may decide to drop you as a customer.
The biggest nighttime driving dangers include:
Drowsy driving
Driving while fatigued causes more than 100,000 crashes a year, resulting in 1,550 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Late-night driving and drowsy driving go hand-in-hand as contributing factors in a crash.
Drowsy driving causes slowed reaction time, lapses in judgment and delays in processing information, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Even a brief lapse of attention is all it takes for a potential crash, says Dr. Sheila Tsai, assistant professor of medicine at National Jewish Health inDenver.
 Alcohol
Although fewer death crashes occur at night than during the day -- about 21,000 vs. 24,000 -- a much greater percentage of after-dark crashes involve alcohol, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration. Thirty-seven percent of deadly nighttime crashes involve a driver with a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.08, compared with 9 percent of deadly daytime crashes.
Night vision
Several factors affect our capacity to see when driving at night, says Dr. Sandy Feldman, an ophthalmologist who is medical director of ClearView Eye andLaserMedicalCenterinSan Diego. For instance, our ability to see color and details diminishes at night, Furthermore, Feldman says, glancing at the headlights of oncoming cars can temporarily blind you.
Tips for safe nighttime driving
  • Drive with a buddy on long trips at night and switch drivers every two hours or 100 miles. If you're driving solo, take a 15-minute break every two hours or 100 miles.
  • Avoid alcohol and medications that can cause drowsiness.
  • Avoid driving at times when you normally would be asleep.
  • If you wear contact lenses, carry a backup pair of glasses in your car in case you lose a lens or your lenses become uncomfortable.
  • If you wear glasses, consider getting an anti-reflective coating, which helps reduce glare from nighttime lights.
  • Clean your car's headlight, blinkers and windows at least once a week.
  • Check for misaligned headlights, which can blind other drivers and reduce your ability to see the road.
  • Reduce your speed and increase your following distance. Gauging another vehicle's speed and distance becomes more difficult at night.

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