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Drowsy driving is a bigger problem than we realized

Researchers have known that sleep-deprived drivers are a traffic menace. But a new study reveals that drowsy drivers are more widespread than previously thought.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concludes that drowsy driving may be eight times higher than federal estimates. That could mean that dangerously tired drivers are one of the leading culprits in motor vehicle accidents.

Drowsy driving report is a wake-up call for safety experts

The AAA Foundation conducted the most in-depth study ever of the issue of drowsy drivers. The research focused on ordinary drivers who had dash-mounted cameras. Researchers viewed the video from 700 crashes, starting with the 3 minutes leading up to impact. By analyzing the percentage of time drivers' eyes are closed, researchers can differentiate between normal blinking and "microsleep" episodes in which the person briefly loses consciousness.

AAA researchers concluded that nearly 10 percent of crashes are caused by drowsy drivers. Federal traffic experts have put that number at only 1 or 2 percent. Previous studies have focused on drowsy truck drivers, especially those who violate federal limits on hours behind the wheel in one shift. These findings suggest that the commuter or soccer mom next to you on the freeway could also be seriously sleep-deprived.

The danger of sleep deprivation

Sleep experts recommend seven consecutive hours of sleep each night to fully "recharge" the brain. For each missing hour of sleep, there is a measurable effect on a driver's concentration, reaction time and decision-making.

In fact, the National Sleep Foundation says that staying awake for long periods or chronic sleep deprivation can be as dangerous as drunk driving. Staying awake for 18 hours is similar to having a .05 blood-alcohol level. After 24 hours without sleep, a driver would be more impaired than a person who is legally drunk.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 800 fatalities and 44,000 injury crashes each year are attributable to drowsy driving. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees that sleep deprivation is underestimated and that drowsy driving causes or contributes to as many as 6,000 traffic deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries.

Don't get behind (or stay behind) the wheel sleepy

Just as you wouldn't drive drunk, you should not drive if you know you are sleep-deprived. If you do find yourself blinking, yawning, closing your eyes or drifting out of your lane, stop driving immediately. Coffee or turning up the radio will not keep you awake, at least not very long. Let someone else drive or pull over and take a 15 or 20-minute nap to refresh yourself.

Source: Prevalence of Drowsy Driving Crashes (AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety)

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