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Drowsy driving risk multiplies with each fewer hour of sleep

A couple weeks ago, we wrote about a man who lost his life in a car accident while sleep-driving on the medication Ambien. This is one of the drug's very rare side effects, but studies have shown that users of Ambien and other sleep aids may be too drowsy in the morning to drive safely.

Drowsy driving is the cause of (or a major contributing factor to) a significant number of auto accidents, and researchers are now attempting to determine both how to address the problem and which drivers are most at risk. According to the results of a study published this month in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, drowsy driving is most likely to affect individuals who routinely get less than six hours of sleep per night.

Researchers analyzed data from the world's largest telephone survey; which is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Americans age 18 and older were asked about their sleeping habits as well as asked to report how often they had driven drowsy in the past 30 days.

Those who reported getting six or five hours per night were compared to those who said they got seven hours of sleep each night; which was the apparent baseline figure. According to the results:

  • Individuals sleeping six hours per night were twice as likely to report drowsy driving
  • Individuals sleeping five hours per night were four times as likely to drive drowsy
  • Five- and six-hour per night sleepers who said that they always felt adequately rested were nonetheless three times more likely to drive drowsy than those sleeping seven hours per night

One of the study's co-authors noted that “Falling asleep at the wheel is a major cause of road accidents. It might even be more of a problem than drunk driving, since it is responsible for more serious crashes per year."

Because of America's "work hard play hard" culture, many people view sleep deprivation as a badge of honor rather than a health and safety risk. If we want to reduce the rate of car accidents, however, this attitude has to change.

Source: Claims Journal, "Short Sleepers Most Likely to Be Drowsy Drivers," Oct. 2, 2013

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