To combat the problem, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research are kicking off a campaign aimed at educating the public about ways to reduce the number of drowsy drivers.
"It's a significant problem in that it accounts for at least 1,500 deaths if not more and we're concerned it's a growing problem," says Dr. Ricardo Martinez, an emergency room physician and head of the NHTSA. "We have to take steps now so that it's not a major problem."
The government-led effort will include distributing educational materials to shift workers and their employers, including advice about allowing nap breaks and providing proper air conditioning and access to appropriate foods.
The institutions will also teach workers to adapt their sleeping environments by blocking out daylight and masking noise that can disturb them. Eighteen companies have recently been awarded $180,000 in grants to start and evaluate test programs.
The sleep disorders center, part of the National Institute of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, is also teaching teen-agers and their teachers about the dangers of drowsy driving. The average teen needs about nine hours of sleep per night, one or two more hours than younger or older people do.
The government is hoping to get the attention of people who work rotating or odd shifts like nurse Lillian Millitello. The Buffalo, New York woman crashed her car after working an overnight shift last October. "I fell asleep and rolled the car and never realized that I was falling asleep," she recalls.
It's not just drivers who are at risk. Rita Marone's 18-year-old daughter Jessica died when the teenage driver of the car she was in fell asleep at the wheel. Marone has formed an advocacy group against drowsy drivers called Volunteers Against Irresponsible Drowsy Drivers.
Dr. Claude Lenfant, director of the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says "People with insufficient sleep suffer impairments in performance, attention and reaction time, which leads to errors, including automobile crashes."
According to a report issued by the two institutions, the number of people working evening, night, rotating or split shifts rose 30 percent between 1985 and 1997. According to the Department of Labor, 15 million workers now hold down shift jobs.
While factory workers account for the largest percentage of shift workers, the biggest gains were in the service industry, such as people who staff 24-hour computer support lines or mail-order catalogs.
The government estimates that 56,000 accidents every year are the direct result of drowsy drivers, leading to at least 40,000 injuries, though many experts say the ctual figures are probably much higher.