12/03/2010 08:35 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Drowsy Driving: Don't Find Yourself Doing It This Holiday Season

The statistics speak volumes:

  • Approximately one in every six fatal crashes -- or 16.5 percent -- in the U.S. involves a drowsy driver.
  • Ten percent of drivers surveyed by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety admitted to falling asleep while driving their vehicle during the past 12 months.
  • At least one quarter of respondents said that they got behind the wheel during the previous four weeks even though it had been hard to keep their eyes open.
  • And paradoxically, when asked how acceptable driving while finding it difficult to keep your eyes open was, a whopping 85 percent said it was unacceptable.

Translation: we don't walk our talk. People who see drowsy driving as unacceptable have done it themselves.

The authors of this latest study explain that some drivers may not understand the impact not getting enough sleep can have on an your alertness, reflexes and degree of fatigue.

I couldn't agree more. Drunk driving is such a strong societal taboo, and yet drowsy driving may arguably be more prevalent -- and equally as dangerous. Similar to the effects of alcohol and other drugs, sleepiness decreases awareness, slows reaction time and impairs judgment. Add that to an existing sleep disorder and you're looking at a recipe for very serious disaster and harm to yourself and others. Consider these other stats:

  • Drowsy drivers are involved in one in every eight crashes in which somebody ends up in a hospital.
  • One in every 14 crashes in which the vehicle was towed away involves a driver who was drowsy.
  • Sleepers with mild sleep apnea are twice as likely to crash their cars.

As we enter the holiday season, this latest survey makes for a good reminder. When you add the stress of family gatherings with copious food and beverage -- not to mention sugar highs and sleep deprived lows -- it's enough to leave anyone exhausted at the end of the party. Yet we all need to get home somehow. It's practically human nature to underestimate the negative effects associated with fatigue and sleep deprivation and, conversely, overestimate our abilities to overcome them while driving.

This new data underscores the importance of recognizing the power of sleep deprivation and the perils that can await us when we don't take measures to police our own habits, as well as our well-being. It is really very simple: If you are the least bit sleepy, do not put yourself or others in danger.   A designated, sober and well rested driver is something to consider this holiday season.

Sweet dreams,

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
The Sleep Doctor™