Driving while drowsy: The dangers of having Mr. Sandman take the wheel

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Crawford Frazer

Most drivers understand that it's dangerous to get behind the wheel after drinking -- or with a cellphone in hand. But they might not think twice about driving while sleepy, groggy or "out of it" and might ignore those "I'm yawning and beginning to lose it" moments.

Eye-opening statistics

About 100,000 reported crashes each year are caused by drowsy drivers, resulting in more than 1,550 deaths, 71,000 injuries and $12.5 billion in losses, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The National Sleep Foundation reports that 50 percent of U.S. adults have gotten behind the wheel while groggy, and 20 percent acknowledged falling asleep at the wheel.

AAA's 2010 Traffic Safety Culture Index found that two out of five drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel at some point, with one in 10 saying they have done so in the past year. Just like drugs and alcohol, AAA points out, sleepiness makes you less aware, slows your reaction time and impairs your judgment -- a deadly mix while behind the wheel.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, some groups are at an increased risk for drowsy driving:

  • Drivers age 16 to 25, who generally have less experience and are more likely to drive at night.
  • Shift workers, who are six times more likely to get in a drowsy driving crash.
  • Commercial truck drivers, who often drive long hours and long distances.
  • Business travelers, who often drive when they're jetlagged and dehydrated.

Heed the warning signs

If sleepiness doesn't hit until you're already on the road, here are some warning signs that you may need a rest stop, according to Edmunds.com:

  • You lose your focus and your eyes feel like they want to stay shut.
  • You have difficulty keeping your head up.
  • You experience disconnected or wandering thoughts.
  • You find yourself tailgating or weaving out of your lane.
  • You got less than six hours of sleep before a big trip.
  • You've traveled more than 100 miles or driven for more than two hours.
  • You keep yawning.
  • You violate a small traffic rule (blowing through a stop sign, for example). Traffic violations can ding your driving record and raise your auto insurance premiums -- or have more tragic consequences.
  • You hit the rumble strip on the highway.
  • You find yourself "spacing out" -- not realizing you've made a wrong turn until miles later, for example.

If you experience any of the above, here are some tips from Edmunds.com and the National Sleep Foundation for completing your trip safely:

  • If you feel sleepy, pull over.
  • Consider having a caffeinated beverage like coffee, tea or an energy drink. But don't over-caffeinate yourself. Caffeine takes about 30 minutes to enter the bloodstream. Use that time for a nap.
  • Strive for at least six hours of sleep before a big trip.
  • Take breaks regularly.
  • Try not to drive more than 120 miles at a time or 400 miles a day.

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