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Drunk or Drowsy Driving? Research Says There May Not Be Much Difference

The dangers of drunk driving are well known. But could driving drowsy be just as dangerous, or even more dangerous, than driving drunk?

Lack of sleep is bad for your health, as it is known to raise the risk of many significant chronic health conditions. Among these are heart disease, diabetes, urinary complications, colon cancer, and breast cancer. While these are potentially long-term consequences of not getting enough sleep, there’s also a short-term consequence that should not be forgotten: auto and truck accidents. In fact, it’s estimated that lack of sleep plays a role in 21% of all fatal auto accidents.

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep 7 to 9 hours per night and that adults over 65 sleep 7 to 8 hours per night. Even small declines in the time we sleep can have a drastic impact on our driving abilities. According to AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, missing only 1 to 2 hours of sleep can nearly double a person’s risk of being involved in an auto or truck accident. The risk is even greater for those who sleep for only 4 to 5 hours. For these drivers, their risk of being in an auto accident is more than 4 times that of their well-rested counterparts.

These numbers can seem a bit abstract, but consider this: AAA’s study found that driving after only 4 to 5 hours of sleep puts the driver at the same risk of being involved in a crash as someone drunk driving at or slightly above the legal limit for alcohol consumption. Even worse, sleeping fewer than 4 hours increases a driver’s risk of being in an accident by more than 11 times. That’s an even greater risk of being in a truck accident than someone who is driving drunk at or slightly above the legal limit for DUI.

Most drivers would never consider drinking alcohol and then getting behind the wheel. But far too many people are driving without enough sleep. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1 in 3 adults don’t get their recommended amount of sleep.

Many of us feel that we are aware of when we are sleep deprived. But according to AAA, more than half of all drivers who are involved in drowsy driving crashes did not experience any symptoms before falling asleep while driving. For this reason, AAA recommends that drivers not rely on symptoms, such as difficulty keeping their eyes open. Instead, they recommend that drivers make it a priority to sleep at least 7 hours per night.

Recognizing the dangers of drowsy driving, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has enacted hours of service regulations that aim to prevent truck driver fatigue. These rules specify the exact amount of hours a truck driver can drive in any given shift. The rules also call for mandatory off-duty rest periods. One theory behind these rules is that rested drivers are more alert to their surroundings.

If you feel consistently sleep-deprived, you may want to consult with a medical professional. Health.com has compiled a list of side effects that may be signs that you are not getting enough sleep. Among these are hunger, weight gain, poor memory, and trouble making decisions or impulsive decision making. Drowsy drivers, like drunk drivers, not only put themselves at risk; they also endanger pedestrians and other travelers with whom they share the road. For your safety, the safety of others, and your long-term health: have you had enough sleep?