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Short sleepers may not realize they’re dangerous drowsy drivers

A new study published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention found that people who routinely sleep fewer than 8 hours a night are more likely to experience drowsiness while driving. That may not come as much of a surprise to you, but it might actually be something they themselves do not realize. Many drowsy drivers don’t even realize they’re fatigued — they feel perfectly well-rested.

Yet federal statistics suggest that between 15 and 33 percent of all auto accident deaths in the U.S. are caused by drowsy drivers. Few studies, however, have carefully analyzed what factors are at play when people get behind the wheel when they can’t stay awake. Is it a sense of urgency pressuring them to drive? Are they stubbornly refusing to admit they’re too sleepy to drive safely? Does “highway hypnosis” or some other driving-related factor cause fatigue to sneak up on them?

This study, by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania may have some answers. Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System the researchers were able to compare study participants’ answers about their sleep habits with information about how often they actually experienced drowsy driving.

People who reported sleeping, on average, six hours a night or less were much more likely to have experienced drowsy-driving behavior, even when they thought they were fully rested. In fact, people who habitually slept six hours or less were twice as likely as those who typically slept 7 hours to report an incident of driver fatigue in the 30 days before the survey. People who average five hours of sleep per night were four times more likely.

Here in San Francisco and in other fast-paced, competitive business environments, a lot of people go short on sleep. Some even view minimizing sleep as an indicator of their drive for success. Apparently, it is possible to believe you’re getting enough sleep, however, even when you’re not.

Failure to get enough sleep is one of the driving behaviors most likely to put others on the road at risk of death in an auto accident. If you haven’t been getting at least seven hours of sleep on a routine basis, don’t kid yourself that if you’re used to short sleep your driving is fine — the consequences of being wrong could be catastrophic.

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

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