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Study: Drowsy driving may cause far more crashes than thought

Federal estimates have indicated that drowsiness plays a role in about 1 to 2 percent of traffic crashes. Now, however, a naturalistic study of over 700 wrecks has shown drowsiness to be a much more important factor. It appears to be responsible for between 9.5 and 10.8 percent of crashes.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's research involved placing in-vehicle dashcams in the cars of ordinary drivers. When those drivers crashed, researchers analyzed the dashcam video for evidence that the drivers' eyes had been closed in the three minutes just before the wreck. The amount of time a driver's eyes are closed has been shown to align with their level of drowsiness.

Significant drowsiness was observed in the driver just before 9.5 percent of overall crashes. When measuring only crashes involving significant property damage, drowsiness was observed before 10.8 percent.

CDC, AAA: Around a third of drivers may be drowsy

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35 percent of American drivers say they sleep less than seven hours per night -- the recommended minimum. In a related AAA Foundation survey, 29 percent admitted that, sometime in the last month, they had driven when they were having trouble keeping their eyes open.

Yet at the same time, 96 percent of drivers told the AAA Foundation that they viewed drowsy driving as totally unacceptable behavior and a threat to their safety.

"As many Americans struggle to balance their busy schedules, missing a few hours of sleep each day can often seem harmless," said a AAA spokesperson. "But missing just two to three hours of sleep can more than quadruple your risk for a crash, which is the equivalent of driving drunk."

To be safe, AAA says, you can't wait until your body starts giving you signals like trouble keeping your eyes open. At that point, it's too late. Instead, focus on getting the minimum of seven hours of sleep each night and don't hit the road unless you've slept long enough.

"Don't be fooled, the only antidote for drowsiness is sleep," said another AAA spokesperson. "Short term tactics like drinking coffee, singing, rolling down the window will not work. Your body's need for sleep will eventually override your brain's attempts to stay awake."

Sleep-deprived driving puts everyone on the road at risk. If you haven't slept enough, please try to find an alternative to driving.

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