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Sleepy behind the wheel: How sleep deprivation can lead to serious consequences on the road

You're driving to work in the morning and it's 7a.m. You barely got any sleep last night. Your eyes get heavy and your head slowly starts to nod. Your car starts to cross the traffic lanes and you are suddenly jerked awake. Has this ever happened to you?

Unfortunately, sleep deprivation is a serious and common problem on the road. Our bodies and mind can't fully function on low energy. Without sleep, drivers may end up falling asleep at the wheel and getting into a serious accident.

So how do you know if you're sleep deprived? According to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep deprivation is when an individual fails to get enough sleep. The amount of sleep that a person needs varies from one person to another, but on average most adults need about seven to eight hours of sleep each night to feel alert and well rested. Teens need an average of about nine hours of sleep per night, and children need nine hours of nightly sleep or more, depending on their age.

If you tend to put other things first, like caring for a sick relative, staying up late to study, working longer hours, or even just watching a movie to unwind before bed, you may unknowingly be depriving yourself of sleep. Sometimes it feels like there are not enough hours in the day to get what we want accomplished but it is important to remember that sleep is just as important as any other priority throughout the day.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that in recent years there are an estimated 56,000 crashes annually in which driver drowsiness/fatigue was cited by police. Roughly 40,000 cause injuries and 1,550 lead to fatalities. So what are some of the influences of sleep deprivation on driving performance? According to the Traffic Research Center and Healthguidance.com, slower reaction time, decrease in concentration levels, and disorder in information processing are all effects of being tired behind the wheel. Sleeplessness slows down your reflexes and reaction time slows down, preventing you from stopping in times of danger.

When concentration levels decrease, you may be overly tired and your attention span may decrease. Most people are subject to a decrease in attention every 90-120 minutes; however, sleepiness makes this decrease even worse and it can cause accidents when you fall asleep at the wheel.

Disorder in information processing can be a similar to being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. When you are sleepy, your mental and psychomotor skills diminish. In one study, a group of subjects were kept awake for 28 hours; another group was given alcoholic drinks every half hour. When both groups were tested for hand-eye coordination, the ones who were sleep deprived performed equally bad as the ones with 0.5 blood alcohol level.

So the next time you convince yourself to stay up and do one more thing, think twice. The best option is almost always sleep. Before you get into your car in the morning, late at night or at any time during the day, do a mental check on your awareness and capability to drive, especially if you are going a far distance. Just like drinking and driving or texting and driving don't go together, sleep deprivation and driving could lead to the same serious consequences!

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