Gambling, Fatigue and Drowsy Driving

This archived article is from October 2006. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Fatigue and driving don’t mix.  Studies show that driving performance is affected by lack of sleep in the same ways as by alcohol, leading to collisions, injuries and deaths.

Although we are all vulnerable to fatigue behind the wheel, the risks are not the same for everyone.  Statistically, young people, shift workers and commercial drivers are at higher risk.  Night driving raises the chances of drowsy driving; there are more collisions in the small hours of the night, when circadian rhythms are low.  Anyone who is chronically or acutely sleep deprived is more likely to doze off behind the wheel.  The combination of fatigue and alcohol is particularly deadly; for someone who is tired, one drink will have the impact of several.

One high-risk group that is rarely identified is individuals with gambling problems.  Casinos in North America tend to stay open 24 hours a day, and are often reached by car over long distances.  People with this problem often gamble for very long hours, and then climb into their cars angry, exhausted and depressed.  They may be lucky to snatch a couple of hours of sleep before they rush off to their jobs in the morning, anxious to make some money so they can go back the next night to try to recoup their losses.

Those who work with people who have gambling problems hear many stories about collisions and close calls.  Anecdotally, some highway police are aware of higher collision rates around casinos. 

However, drowsy driving related to gambling has to reach high levels to surpass that of the general population.  For instance, the 2002 Sleep in America poll, done by the National Sleep Foundation, found that over half of the subjects admitted to driving drowsy in the past year.  The 2003 Canadian Driving Survey, prepared for TheSteelAlliance in partnership with the Canada Safety Council, identified 43 percent of the Canadians as doing so.  Numbers for falling asleep and for collisions were equally alarming. 

But a study carried out on 66 clients of the Problem Gambling Service of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health indicated numbers that were even worse.

The problem gamblers had much higher rates of drowsy driving and falling asleep at the wheel, and ten times the collision rate found in the U.S. study.  A third of them gambled past their usual bedtime about once a week.  Another third did so several times a week, and 44 percent actually stayed up all night to gamble.  Some stayed awake as long as 40 hours at a stretch.  The few clients who were heavy drinkers also tended to be the ones that stayed up the latest. 

Not only were these people at risk on their way home from gambling binges, they were tempting fate whenever they got behind the wheel.  These clients lost an average of an hour of sleep every day to their gambling habits, and so quickly accumulated an enormous “sleep debt.” 

Over half the clients admitted to being frustrated, depressed, angry and tired on the way home. This suggests an obvious connection to road rage.  Some clients were aware that their fatigue and their emotions were affecting their driving.  But sadly, 42 percent of these clients were not aware of the risks of driving drowsy.

Nina Littman-Sharp, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health